Chid Sex Tourism in Cambodia

The premise of child sex tourism is something that has never once in my life crossed my mind. Not once, at least not until I came to Cambodia. From the moment I entered the country to the moment I left it, the billboards plastered all over Cambodia kept reminding me that child sex tourism in Cambodia is a thriving industry enjoyed by many.

Photo: Child Sex Tourism is Advertised All Over Cambodia
Photo: Child Sex Tourism is Advertised All Over Cambodia

I began to seriously question the true purpose behind the posters which albeit written to sound as a warning to child sex tourists, did instead subconsciously remind everyone that even if it would never ever occur to them to engage in sex with a child, many people travel to Cambodia for that very purpose so perhaps they should consider it to.

I honestly wonder how many of those who came to Cambodia with sole intention to see ancient Angkor ruins, planned their follow up visit after they were reminded by the so called anti-sex-tourism posters that Cambodia is a suitable country for the deviants to exploit children. I wonder how many of those who did end up exploiting Cambodian children would never have done it had the posters not suggested to them that in this country it’s possible. Cause if I were to guess, I’d say that most men who exploited Cambodian children did not seek out Cambodia in particular, but found out about the possibility to engage in something like that while they were there.

Drop In The Ocean

Cambodian government is so loud mouthed about targeting child sex tourists it made me question what exactly it was they were trying to achieve? Is targeting foreigners all they care about or do they also give a crap about those poor children? I had to ask this simply because compared to rapes of Cambodian children perpetrated by local men, sexual exploitation of Cambodian children by sex tourists is a drop in the ocean.

But there is no government initiative aimed at eliminating child exploitation by locals. These cases don’t even get filed and perpetrators don’t get prosecuted. They are free to exploit these children as often as they please and by golly, do they ever… So if the government doesn’t give a damn about the wellbeing of children, then what is this war on child sex tourism masquerade all about?

The necessity to target child sex tourists in as urgent and stringent manner as humanly possible has never been more important. The world is far better connected now than it ever was and with travel more affordable than it was in the past, the threat of sick-minded individuals talking advantage of children from impoverished countries is on the rise. It’s an issue that can’t be put off but could it be that it’s also a good excuse to grease a corrupt third world pocket with some western dough?

The sole thought that this could be the case is made even more sickening by the fact that while pockets are being greased, the rate at which children are exploited is not dropping. Their well being simply doesn’t appear to be of concern, but it’s a good opportunity to make the government known for being the most corrupt in the world look concerned and determined to make a difference in the eyes of the international community.

The Power of Good Press

Cambodian government is dedicated to fighting child sex tourism” – it has a very good ring to it, doesn’t it? To make themselves look like they care about the most vulnerable part of their society could easily make the international community overlook the fact that corruption and human rights abuses are unrivalled in Cambodia. And while the bigger picture and the true problem get lost in the blaze of the child sex tourism fighting glory, the large scale exploitation of Cambodian children by their own kin continues unhindered, but who cares? The government appears to be concerned with children through their self professed war on child sex tourism, so let’s praise them for it!

In a perfect scheme of things, by seemingly targeting foreigners who travel to Cambodia to exploit children, Cambodian government makes itself look like they really care. And that gets them funding. They just need to do three things:

  • Instruct the police so no rape reports perpetrated by locals are filed
  • Exaggerate the impact of child sex tourism
  • Present themselves as an impoverished country with no budget to fight it

If there are no statistics to prove high occurrence of rape perpetrated by locals, no one will have a reason to suspect it could be the case. And if anyone got too eager to investigate on it, they would find nothing they could work with. Furthermore, with war against child sex tourism in everyone’s face, the focus of independent investigative journalists would be drawn that way cause that’s what the international community talks about and that’s what causes all the outrage. And so the government has both its own initiative, as well as the international press creating a picture which portrays them as dedicated fighters for the rights of children.

With focus successfully taken off the real issue and put on a miniscule, but upsetting one, the Cambodian government is now seen in good light so if they bring up the fact that they don’t have the budget to fight child sex tourism, the international community is likely to come together and provide funding.

Problem From Abroad

Child sex tourism is something that Cambodia is hit with from abroad and that makes it something that countries outside of Cambodian borders are responsible for. That’s a pretty good argument to make the international community feel obliged to contribute to the war on child sex tourism. The problem comes from abroad, so let the money to fight it come from abroad too.

Imagine that instead of blaming foreigners for exploitation of children, the Cambodian government would provide truthful rape statistics which would reveal that vast majority of cases involving exploitation of children were perpetrated by Cambodians. Imagine the numbers would clearly indicate that Cambodian government has done nothing over the decades to protect these children in any way.

Would the international community still see the Cambodian government as an entity entirely devoted to protecting the wellbeing of children? Would the international community still feel as obliged to finance the initiative?

Child sex tourists may account for one in a thousand cases of sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia, but targeting them greases the corrupt government pockets, whereas targeting local rapists doesn’t. Where does that leave the children? Well, tough luck for them. They continue being exploited on a large scale because it’s not really them the government cares about. If they did, perpetrators from friendly neighborhoods would be targeted thousands times as often as child sex tourists are but right now it’s the other way around.

All for One, One For All

The child sex tourism issue in Cambodia is a perfect example which explains what I wrote about in the “How Far You Can See Is Determined By How High You Can Fly” article. It is such a serious issue, it deserves utmost attention and immediate action, however unless people who talk about it rise up to see the bigger picture, the sad reality for many Cambodian children will remain unchanged. And unfortunately, I have yet to meet one person who wouldn’t be completely dim-witted to see the real problem, so I took upon myself to call it for what it is here.

I care about the real problem. I care about the well being of innocent children. And because it’s not heaps of positive press and approval of the sheep that drives me, I don’t lower myself to limiting my reporting to merely what delivers said positive press and approval of the sheep. If all I wanted was positive press, then I would do what everybody else does and would write up an extensive post on how awful child sex tourism is and how big a problem it’s become in Cambodia. That would get the sheep bleeping in accord with me, but would keep the real problem in the dark and with it, the real children as exploited as ever with no outlook of positive change in their already miserable lives.

Unless someone talks about the real problem and addresses it for what it really is, instead of hiding behind a popular topic of condemning child sex tourism to boost their popularity rankings as an investigative journalist, the horrifying reality for scores of Cambodian children will remain as bleak as ever. They are out there and they are suffering in huge numbers because all the public’s outrage targets and draws attention to are child sex tourists, while local rapists whose heinous crimes are done with such severity and frequency they literally make exploitation by foreigners negligent, continue abusing these children unhindered.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in absolute and irrefutable support of bringing child sex tourists to justice but even if we’re successful and child sex tourism is put to a complete halt in Cambodia, it will improve little to nothing about the miserable lives of exploited children in Cambodia. Sick foreigners are certainly a problem, but they are not the main problem. They must be targetted, but the initiative should not end with them. Sexual exploitation of Cambodian children by tourists faints in comparison with how much and how often these children get exploited by locals.

All Children deserve a chance at a better life. They all deserve our protection. Let’s stop ignoring where the bigger problem is and start calling it for what it is. Take those rose tinted glasses off your nose for once and step outside the bubble. It’s our turn to be responsible. Let’s support war on child sex tourism, but let’s at the same time insist that rapists who exploit children on much higher scale are dealt with at an adequate pace.

Violent Crime Against Tourists in Cambodia

Cambodia is a country with corrupt government so naturally crime prevention is not a priority. Crime prevention is typically not even on an agenda. The result is a lawless country with incapable and underpaid police force. Add to it the fact that Cambodian culture is a culture of violence and you get the picture of a country with super high levels of crime, including violent crime against tourists.

Getting scammed and ripped off on a daily basis is something I won’t even list as a crime against foreigners in Cambodia as petty crime is so frequent, every tourist visiting the country will be subjected to it on every step of their stay. Instead, let’s focus on more serious crimes that happen more often than anyone cares to admit – violent crimes in which foreigners are brutally murdered:

Australian Man John Edward Thompson Clubbed to Death in Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville is a coastal resort town in Cambodia and is well known for being one of the most dangerous places in the world. While majority of Tuk Tuk drivers throughout the entire country are shady, you occasionally get a chance to deal with an honest driver who tries to make his living by offering decent services. You can even find such in Phnom Penh but they don’t exist in Sihanoukville. Virtually every Tuk Tuk driver in Sihanoukville is a crook with the rest of the local populace consisting of some of the most dangerous individuals anywhere in the world.

47 year old John Edward Thompson of New South Wales, Australia was clubbed to death in a robbery with wooden sticks while living in Sihanoukville, where violent crime against tourists is more than common.

Source: Daily Telegraph Australia

19 Year Old British Student Eddie Gibson Went to Cambodia and Never Returned

According to the words of his mother Jo Gibson-Clarke, Eddie Gibson, despite being a teenager was well travelled and very capable. He was on his way to visit Bangkok, Thailand but also went for a short visit to Cambodia and has never been seen or heard from again. Like so many before him and so many after him, Eddie Gibson simply vanished in Cambodia with no one investigating on his disappearance.

As I have explained countless times before, violent crimes without repercussions are easy and frequent in Cambodia. The cost of a human life is low (you can have anyone offed for $50) and guns are plentiful. With former Khmer Rouge henchmen roaming the country freely, still armed with their military grade weaponry and explosives, killing someone is a matter of simply wanting to, or having been paid a little to. The body would be then thrown in the jungle where wild dogs will eat it and no one will ever hear from you again. Cambodian police will not investigate and no one will be brought to justice.

Source: Daily Mail UK

David Mitchell, Owner of Ginger Monkey Bar Murdered in Phnom Penh

37 Year Old David Mitchell – a British owner of a Ginger Monkey bar in Phnom Penh and his girlfriend, 29 year old Jane Nye – a journalist from Wellington, New Zealand were stabbed in an armed robbery by a nymphetamine addict in Cambodia’s capital city. David Mitchell died as a result of vicious stabbings, while Jane Nye who had her throat slashed and got bludgeoned survived and was recovering in the hospital in Bangkok, Thailand.

If you survive a violent attack that near kills you, the first and most obvious thing to do is to remove yourself from Cambodia immediately. You don’t want any more dealings with this murderous nation and besides, if you come to a Cambodian hospital with life threatening wounds, you’ll leave with life threatening wounds and an HIV.

Source: New Zealand National News

French Tourist Jean-Pierre Blouin Killed in Sihanoukville

63 year old Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blouin was found floating in the sea near Ocheteal beach with fatal wounds to the neck, head and chest. His passport and an empty wallet were found nearby.

In an unrelated incident, another Frenchman, the hotel owner in Cambodia was hacked to death with a meat cleaver in his bedroom.

In yet another unrelated incident, a Canadian girl was raped on a beach in Sihanoukville by a Cambodian military police officer in 2004.

Source: Monsters and Critics

Canadian Aid Worker Jiri Zivny Beaten and Left for Dead in Sihanoukville

43 year old Jiri Zivny was a member of the team of volunteers from International Humanitarian Hope Society, a Kamloops, BC, Canada based humanitarian agency that specializes in distribution of vitamins and food to orphanages in Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Thailand and Burma. In mid January, 2009 Jiri Zivny was withdrawing money from an ATM machine in Sihanoukville when he was attacked, brutally beaten and left for dead in a ditch. When he was discovered, he was stripped of all of his possessions, including his clothes and in a coma. It took a while to get him to the hospital where he was later proclaimed dead due to severe head trauma suffered during the attack.

In an attempt to play down the crime (or perhaps in an attempt to come with a fabricated “breaking story” to establish himself as a superior journalist), a news surfaced that according to some Canadian, the murder of Jiri Zivny was a traffic accident. Even though Jiri Zivny’s body had no rash or scratches typical of bike accidents, and had his cell phone, camera, money and clothes disappear with the attack, Cambodian officials are in a major rush to make his brutal murder play down as a traffic accident. Such whitewash is something that could be expected. Cambodian authorities are experts at sweeping the story under the carpet if it could jeopardize visitor numbers.

Source: National Post

Contradicting Statements About Safety in Cambodia

This is the list of just a few documented cases of foreigners – both tourists and expats killed in violent crime attacks in Cambodia. Strangely enough and following truly bad journalism, many reports contain contradicting or downright silly statements regarding safety in Cambodia. For example following statement from the Reuters report about the murder of David Mitchell in Phnom Penh concludes with the following statement:

Despite its reputation for lawlessness, most violence against foreigners in the impoverished southeast nation, which is still recovering from decades of civil war including the Khmer Rouge genocide, is limited to street crime or assault.

Most violence against foreigners is limited to street crime or assault? Hmm… Does that not cover it all, really? Sure there are also foreigners hacked up with meat cleavers in their own bedrooms, like the French hotel owner, but getting violently assaulted in the street is all it takes to get you killed in Cambodia and that’s exactly what happens in this country more often than any politically correct newspaper would like to admit. Tourist safety is in question so let’s stop being politically correct and call a spade a spade. The politically incorrect translation of said statement, without beating about the bush would read:

Foreigners in Cambodia are subjected to considerable danger of being the victims of violent crime.

Then there is an even more ridiculous statement about safety in Cambodia in an article related to the murder of Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blouin who was killed for 2,000 Riel (about $.50). The statement reads:

While muggings are common in Cambodia, where a sense of lawlessness and a gun culture remain after decades of war that ended in 1998, serious attacks on foreigners have been rare.

Wow! So mugging is not a serious crime? Does this reporter mean that unless a person dies, it’s not worthy of mentioning and doesn’t add to how dangerous the country really is? Violent armed robberies are extremely common in Cambodia and just because some people survive them – regardless of how bloodied and near dead they end up – are we not supposed to count them and continue fooling new travellers to Cambodia with statements that Cambodia is otherwise safe?

Many foreigners (including myself) have been and still are subjected to violent assaults in Cambodia, but all know really darn well that reporting the assaults to the Cambodian police is a waste of time. Yet it’s only a waste of time if they are lucky. In a less lucky case, upon reporting, they would be subjected to extortion or ridicule by the police themselves. Thus, foreigners simply chalk it up as a bad experience, try to collect themselves and swallow the pride hoping it will not happen to them again. The scars follow them for the rest of their lives, but there simply is nothing they can do about it in a country like Cambodia. Unless the case involves shockingly gory loss of life, not only will it not be reported to the police, it will not make it to the media at all.

What Causes Violent Crime Against Tourists in Cambodia?

It is important to understand that a country with hundreds of murders each day will not get an international community talking. However if a government arrests just one person outside of standards accepted by the international community, that could cause a massive media backlash. One wrong arrest could result in human rights violations accusations which could result in shrinkage of foreign aid and foreign support for opposition to oust current dictatorship.

Hence for a government of Cambodia it is easier and more “international media friendly” to let violent crime get out of hand, even if it involves tourists, than having any of the criminals prosecuted and put away. Unfortunately, this approach hurts both ordinary Cambodians who needlessly die in the hands of criminals the number of which seem to be growing like mushrooms after rain, as well as foreigners who are far more attractive targets for violent crime than the locals.

Angkor People and Corruption in Cambodia

Here I was at last – facing the entrance gate to Angkor Wat after a brief bike ride around the vast moat that surrounds it. Ready to start exploring the largest religious complex in the world, I noticed that the area around the Angkor temples is densely inhabited by Angkor People – locals living in wooden houses on stilts. Whole Angkor Archaeological Park is full of randomly scattered villages people of which take good advantage of increasing popularity of Angkor and unceasingly follow every tourist until they succeed in talking them into spending some money. Sadly, at present time, exploring Angkor Wat also means being hassled by locals on every step of your way.

I am not entirely sure what Angkor People would do if they didn’t live in the neighbourhood of famous ancient temples. Tourists are a source of easy money and Angkor People are well aware of it by taking full advantage of the fact, but what if they weren’t that lucky and haven’t had their predecessors built these phenomenal complexes that result in millions of dollars in revenue? I can imagine that at some point in the past, they were focused on growing cattle, growing rice and perhaps hand-crafting useful items that could be offered for sale at markets in Siem Reap.

But this is no longer the case. Nowadays the villagers get up early in the morning and station themselves at the gates to the nearest temple or other point of interest that attracts lots of tourists and spend their whole days following each and every one of them around basing their livelihood on their success rate to get as much out of each tourist as possible. Children as young as 3 years old are dispatched by their parents after the tourists because it’s easier for them to talk a tourist into buying worthless junk than it is for their parents. Afterall, who could say no to a child that just learned how to speak and is already reciting well tailored sentences in English that are aimed to melt your heart and… most importantly, open your wallet?

Photo: Instead of Sending Them to School Parents Equip Their Kids to Sell Junk to Tourists (Angkor Wat)
Photo: Instead of Sending Them to School Parents Equip Their Kids to Sell Junk to Tourists (Angkor Wat)

If you end up spending several days exploring the temples of Angkor, you will notice that children who should be at school spend their whole days bothering tourists, vastly undisturbed by the fact that they are not getting any education. The ability to talk as many foreigners as possible into spending the money is all they have going for the future. They can’t read or write in their mother’s tongue, but they can already speak English and possibly one or more other foreign languages. Infants who are too small to follow tourists around are trained to recognize foreigners and repeatedly scream “Hello” at them. You will get that on every step. Kids under two years old will instantly leap on their feet and start yelling “Hello” and waving at you as soon as they catch a glimpse of you. And this is the way they are brought up – believing that their purpose in life is to get after every foreigner in vicinity and don’t stop bothering them until they have lured some money out of them. And if the wallet gets pulled out, then try to get as much as possible – never settle with little amounts.

From the beginning I could not comprehend the fact that when you go to Angkor you see all those kids trying to get money from you when they should be at school, but as I started paying closer attention to the issue, I noticed that parents themselves don’t want to send the kids to school because if they spend the best part of the day there, then who’s gonna bother tourist for easy money? It’s much easier for kids to score dough than it is for adults so why waste kid’s time for schools? The older they get, the more difficult it will be for them to talk foreigners out of their money so school gets simply taken off the list of important things for their kids.

But it gets even worse. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Cambodia is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, second only to the likes of Somalia where there is no government to begin with so it’s hard to talk about corruption or well known, long established mothers of all things corrupt – Burma (Myanmar) and Haiti. The government of Cambodia is too corrupt to care about anything other than their own pockets. The fact that their people lack education is of little concern or, more likely, a preferred outcome because obviously uneducated, poor population will continue attracting foreign donations much of which will end up in the pockets of corrupt officials. They need the world to see the poor people with no access to education and health care because that’s what drives sympathy and compassion and those are the main driving force behind millions dollars that come to Cambodia from international philanthropists. And once this money is in Cambodia, people in power get to choose what is done with it. Only a small fraction makes it to where it’s needed and this is precisely the purpose.

Again, if living conditions for ordinary people improved, donations would shrink or… stop completely. In other words, if they used the money they have to fix their country and improve the economy, then there would be no more need for international organizations to continuously sending more aid. This fact is amplified even more by the fact that Angkor attracts millions of people to Cambodia every year and that generates massive revenue. It starts with a $20 – $25 visa fee, continues with a pile of expenses to cover for everyone’s stay and gets highlighted with Angkor Entrance Fee which ranges from $20 to $60 per person.

Here’s the catch – Apsara Authority, Cambodian organization responsible for protection, conservation and research at Angkor World Heritage Site sees mere 10% of all the funds accumulated by charging entrance fees to Angkor Archaeological Park. This is yet another scam played up by corrupt Cambodian government (along with the scam by Sokha Hotels chain, the Sokimex gasoline conglomerate division with close ties to CPP – Cambodia’s leading People’s Party which runs ticket concessions and gets to keep 17% of revenue generated by Angkor temples).

If majority of the monies Angkor generates was used to preserve and protect it, then foreign organizations that currently sponsor preservation, restoration and protection efforts at Angkor would no longer be necessary. Whereas right now, because Cambodian body responsible for preservation and protection of Angkor (Apsara Authority) doesn’t have enough money, they heavily rely on help from the abroad. But let’s ask again – why does Apsara Authority not have enough money in the first place? How is it possible that they can’t make ends meet if Angkor generates millions upon millions of dollars in direct foreign revenue (plus indirect revenue from Tuk Tuk fees, tour operation fees, sales of keepsakes, etc.)?

Just as foreign donations to Cambodia disappear in the black hole of the corrupt Cambodian system, so do the money generated by Angkor temples. For as long as majority of Cambodian people remain poor, uneducated and health care deprived, the donations will not stop coming. And for as long as Apsara Authority continues not getting enough money to look after the works needed to preserve Angkor themselves, foreign sponsors will continue investing their money to Angkor to ensure this magnificent site doesn’t fall into ruin.

Legendary Khmer Hospitality Myth

If you’re doing your homework and looking up info on Cambodians (Khmer people), you may stumble across references about Khmer Hospitality which is allegedly legendary. I had also heard about it prior to my arrival to Cambodia and just as everyone else who came to the country with open mind, I was set up for a big surprise. Legendary Khmer hospitality is a myth. At least the genuine one, but then again – all other forms of hospitality are worse than hostility. Let me explain:

When I was offered sticky rice cakes by complete strangers at Wat Bo temple, it was my day two of a three month stay in the country. This generous gift was from the heart and represented the most sincere form of generosity. Exactly the way I’ve heard about and came to expect. Sadly enough, this was an extremely isolated incident and cases of genuine hospitality and/or generosity towards strangers, especially if the stranger is a foreigner are virtually nonexistent. During the three months following this experience, all I have encountered on daily basis was fake hospitality. What’s fake hospitality?

You see – as a foreigner, you will be nothing less and nothing more to Cambodians than a walking bag of money, or a walking ATM machine if you will. Cambodians won’t see a friend in you, they will only see the opportunity to make money. They may act like the nicest friends to you, but hidden motives will come to light sooner or later. You may even be offered something (aka hospitality), but if you are given something, it’s because they will expect something back in return. The fact that it’s natural for westerners to return the favor was noticed by Cambodians who relentlessly abuse it for their benefit.

You may encounter a random local approaching you with beaming smile, offering you free drink in this scorching weather (or anything else) which will surely leave you in awe. What they’re doing is making you feel obliged to buy something from them. It’s a way to get close to foreigners as it’s getting more and more difficult due to extremely aggressive nature of Tuk Tuk drivers and omnipresent touts. This is not hospitality, this is abuse of the fact that westerners are used to appreciate random acts of kindness and understand the premise of returning the favor.

If you stay in a country for an extended period of time, you will make some local friends. If you are volunteering, you will be dedicating your time, skill and effort (as well as money) to betterment of their lives and locals you will be volunteering for will become your friends. They will not need to “bribe” you with “free” offering the way other locals have to, because they are already close to you so the barrier is broken. They can straight up mention that they are cooking and ask you if you’d like to try a local dish. You will not be asked for anything, but sooner or later the time will come when you will be told something along the lines of: “my mom, who invited you to have papaya salad with us few weeks ago…”

One way or another, you will be reminded that they did something for you. That reminder will come when they need something. They will bide their time until the most suitable time (time that can bring them most in return) comes. Sharing something from the heart, just because it’s the right thing to do and because it gives you good karma points is extremely, extremely rare in Cambodia and if you encounter such thing, you can count yourself as one of very few.

It is important to understand the following:

I understand that Cambodians are impoverished people with bleak outlooks for brighter future as corruption is deeply embedded in all levels of society, including high rank politicians, but that still doesn’t mean that this urban myth should continue being spread on. Legendary Khmer hospitality is a myth. If you want to experience genuine hospitality, where people give unconditionally, without expectations to get something in return, go to Eastern Europe. Finding it in Cambodia is extremely rare. And this is not limited to hospitality. The same applies to help, for example. You won’t get unconditional help in Cambodia. If you are lost, need directions or advice and approach a local, they will instantly try to take advantage of the situation and make something off of you. Under normal circumstances, locals have to fight with dozens of other locals who struggle to get to the foreigner for a shot at making money off of them. If a foreigner makes their own effort to expose themselves to a local, it will be like blessing to the local and they won’t pass on this opportunity.

Genuine hospitality in Cambodia doesn’t exist. As doesn’t unconditional help. I realize that one should strive to only say good things about others and if there is something bad, then you either need not mention it or still need to say it’s good because that’s a nice thing to do. But I believe it’s inappropriate to continue spreading on the myth about legendary Khmer hospitality even though it doesn’t exist. I believe in providing truthful information, not incomplete truth in the name of being politically correct. when something is good, I’ll say it’s good and give due respect and acknowledgement. But when something is bad, I won’t simply ignore it just so I don’t sound hurtful.

The truth is, for one case of genuine hospitality, there are hundred of cases of fake hospitality in Cambodia. Fake hospitality is often camouflaged with fancy fluff so if a person is unobservant or ignorant, they may not even realize that they were taken advantage of. The reason no one will go openly at you with fake hospitality is that in case you are that naive, then there is a chance to take advantage of you repeatedly. Perhaps that’s why urban legends about Khmer Hospitality exist. It’s like brainwash by the politicians – not only will you do as they say, you will even ask for it and recommend your friend to do it that way too.

Metfone Cambodia – Easy Cell Phone Solution for Tourists

As I set out on long term travel, I packed up my unlocked LG Chocolate cell phone to use with local SIM cards at places I stop for an extended period of time. Since my cell was a GSM phone and was unlocked, it should work with any GSM network anywhere in the world and given that most mobile phone providers are GSM, this should be a good enough solution.

I knew I was gonna stay in Cambodia for a while so I wanted to get myself a local SIM card there so I’m connected and easily accessible. From the beginning it seemed like a big deal because there used to be only limited mobile phone services available to tourists but it all seemed to have changed when Metfone launched in Cambodia.

Metfone, from what I understand is a subsidy of a successful mobile provider from Vietnam that expended their services to neighbouring Cambodia where tourist boom took significant proportions and income from tourism grew exponentially. From what I was explained, prior to Metfone, tourists were only able to purchase temporary SIM cards which expired after 2 weeks and were not rechargeable. The way around it was to bribe a Tuk Tuk driver and have him buy an unrestricted SIM card under his name and use it yourself. This approach was no longer relevant since Vietnam based Metfone entered Cambodian mobile market.

The availability of unrestricted SIM cards for tourists from Metfone was a brand new thing when I came to Siem Reap so I went to the main branch located on Sivatha Boulevard, right across the street from Canadian Bank and enquired about the possibility to purchase a SIM card for long term use with my cell phone. I brought my LG unit with me to test it out first in order to make sure I don’t spend money for something that would be incompatible with my cell phone.

To my pleasant surprise, everything went smoother than I anticipated. Metfone representatives were very welcoming and put one of their SIM cards into my phone and let me use it to see that it works without issues. It costs only $3 to purchase a brand new SIM card that has no restrictions and it comes with $2 worth of call credits plus a bonus of $5 worth of call credits within Metfone network. You get your own number that you can recharge when your credit is used up and you can continue using it until you have not recharged your credit for over a month.

I have hesitated not and pulled $3 out of my pocket to get a Metfone SIM card. I was asked to provide a passport as a requirement in order to purchase a SIM card with Metfone, which I did not have on me (it wears out quickly when you carry it in your pockets all the time, plus losing it or having it stolen results in way too much headache, hence I don’t normally carry my passport on me unless can’t otherwise) and thought it was gonna be a problem, but wasn’t. I was simply subsequently asked if I had any other picture ID on me I could provide to prove my identity. I told them I had my Alberta Driver’s License which they said was OK, so I handed it to them so we moved to the last part of sealing a deal – choosing a phone number.

Metfone has that policy that for any decent, half decent and not even remotely good, but better than a randon sequence of numbers phone number you have to pay extra. All numbers available for $3 were plain and simple shit. Anything that has repeated digits or some cool combination of numbers was priced way up ($300 or so). It made no sense paying so much money for a number I’d only use for a month or two, so I was stuck with crappy numbers, but I still tried to nail down one that would be somewhat cool. I settled down with one that ended with 420.

Things change quickly in Cambodia. Only days prior to my arrival it would have been impossible to get an unrestricted cell phone number for use by a tourist (unless you’d cheat the system and obtain one under the name of a local whom you’d have to pay for doing it for you). There was even a law if my sources are correct that disallowed possession of unrestricted SIM cards by foreigners but Metfone changed it all and lawmakers followed by making Cambodia more foreigner friendly. By now, it is possible that there are other mobile providers that offer unrestricted SIM cards to tourists. Shop around to see what’s out there. At the time of this post, there were 9 different mobile providers in Cambodia. That makes for more than enough competition and tourists are the ones with money to spare. They all will want to accommodate the needs of tourists so prices and availability will match the demand.

Getting myself hooked up was really easy. No hessle whatsoever, not even absense of passport was a problem. I would just close this article with a disclaimer statement that I do not endorse Metfone, am not in any way affiliated with them nor get paid in any way. This is my journal so I’m describing things as they happened. Because I was able to get a cell number without hassle from Metfone, I have never checked with any other provider. At the time, I was quite happy and content with what I got from Metfone so I went with it.

Phsar Chas – Old Market in Siem Reap

Since my previous attempt at buying fruit at an open market failed, I was gonna browse through the nearby Old Market (Phsar Chas) and see what is for sale there. I was however determined I would not buy anything, I just wanted to see what they had. Afterall, I was already well fed and felt rather content for the morning. Phsar Chas – Old Market is only steps away from Siem Reap’s Pub Street where Khmer Family Restaurant is located so despite growing heat, I set on my merry way in general Old Market direction.

Motorcycles Parked by Phsar Chas - Old Market in Siem Reap
Motorcycles Parked by Phsar Chas - Old Market in Siem Reap

It was hot. Phsar Chas – Old Market is a marketplace cramped with stalls selling all sorts of merchandise. It’s roofed and not air-conditioned or otherwise ventilated which means you will be sweating your guts out the moment you step inside. The smell is not very flattering either. Some stalls sell fish or dried up meat from unknown sources which give off a lot of, often unpleasant smells in this heat. But Old Market is an experience of its own.

It’s mostly used by locals so as a tourist you will stand out like a sore thumb and will be approached on every step. Owners of the stalls will always see a walking bag of money in you and will do their darnest best to get as much as possible. That’s what makes shopping at marketplaces such as this Old Market so difficult. They have their merchandise on display, but never with prices. Locals shop there all the time and pay fair price, where as when a tourist comes to vicinity, each vendor sees the opportunity to sell at a price that’s a high factor of what locals would pay.

I have recognized this immediately which made it excessively difficult for me to possibly buy anything from the markets. I’d much rather go to a tourist mall where items may not be as plentiful, but food is stored in refrigerated cabinets, not in the open heat and prices are clearly market. Those prices may be higher than what locals pay for the same item at a market, but for a tourist it means that there will be no surprises when it comes to paying. I know what I’ve picked up, I know what my total will be. At a market place such as Old Market, you never do and since I was still new to Siem Reap and Cambodia all together, I did not know what fair price for let’s say a water melon is. It would be really easy to rip me off.

South End of Phsar Chas aka Old Market in Siem Reap with View of Stalls Facing the Street
South End of Phsar Chas aka Old Market in Siem Reap with View of Stalls Facing the Street

Nevertheless, taking a walk through Old Market is a worthy experience. Brace yourself for extreme heat and lots of sweat (at least in rainy season), unpleasant smells of all sorts and glittering eyes of vendors which come alight when they spot you and start running at you until they are in your face and corner you so you can’t get away. Other vendor from other stalls will do the same in hopes you end up buying from them, not someone else so it’s them who get to rip you off, not next door stall. This “in your face” treatment of tourists is rather aggravating and you will get a lot of it. It’s unfortunate and rather discouraging. It discouraged me well enough from ever buying at Old Market or any other market for that matter.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

In native Khmer language, the meaning of Siem Reap is “Siam Defeated”. This is hardly the case anymore, as Kingdom of Siam, or Kingdom of Thailand as it is known today ultimately defeated the Kingdom of Cambodia and put both Siem Reap as well as entire Angkor area under their control. The name of Siem Reap remained, much to the dismay of Thailand as it’s become the most popular destination town in Cambodia, serving as gateway to Angkor temples so now everybody thinks the Khmer owned the Siam.

Location of Siem Reap on a map. The map is navigable and interactive:

Siem Reap and Angkor were under Siamese control from 1794 to 1907, until French troops came, conquered Cambodia and put it under their control. It didn’t take long before French explorers discovered the ruins of Angkor Wat temples and through them the buzz about the largest religious complex in the world had spread into Europe. Europeans soon started to flood Cambodia to see what the buzz was all about and Siem Reap quickly started to turn from a complex of villages centred around wats to a popular tourist hub.

Fast expansion of Siem Reap continued and come 1929, the town saw its first hotel – The Grand Hotel d’Angkor. Up until the late 1960’s, Angkor Wat remained one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting the likes of Jackie Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin.

All has been put to an abrupt stop in 1975 when communist Khmer Rouge seized power over Cambodia and drove much of Siem Reap’s population into the countryside. This mass evacuation and prosecution of all who practised religious faith stopped the growing influx of tourists who saw Cambodia as dangerous destination for all travelers. On their crusade to eradicate religion, Khmer Rouge destroyed many of Siem Reap’s temples (though protected by its divinity, Ya-Tep Shrine was beyond the scope of their might).

Photo: Ya Tep Shrine in the Heart of Siem Reap Town
Photo: Ya Tep Shrine in the Heart of Siem Reap Town

When bloody reign of Khmer Rouge was put to an end, Cambodians started the process of rebuilding Siem Reap to its former glory. New temples were built in town, old traditions were dusted off and holy days of Buddhism were celebrated once more. The hit Cambodia suffered in the hands of Khmer Rouge took a while to recover from, though. International community did not regain its lost trust in Cambodia until mid 1990’s when first foreign tourists dared to re-enter the country.

Pol Pot, the mastermind behind Khmer Rouge died in 1998 and his death brought upon the new era of Cambodia. Siem Reap has been vastly rebuilt, Angkor temples made more accessible and tourism industry in Cambodia kept growing exponentially. When UNESCO designated Angkor Wat a World Heritage Site, putting it on the map right up there with the Pyramids in Giza, Machu Pichu in Peru or the Taj Mahal in India, Cambodia, and especially Siem Reap quickly spiked as one of the most coveted travel destinations. Nowadays, tourism is the life force behind Siem Reap’s growth that’s been inadequately faster than in the rest of Cambodia.

Cambodia receives more tourists than any of its mightier neighbours and it’s all only thanks to Angkor Wat. Millions of tourists who come to Cambodia only visit the country because of Angkor Archaeological Park. And since Siem Reap is the closest town with all facilities, virtually all of the visitors to Cambodia make it there.

If you are planning to visit Angkor temples, Siem Reap is where you will be staying, dining and getting entertainment. Full scale of accommodation options ranging from budget guesthouses to 5 star hotels are available in Siem Reap. Same goes for restaurants, bars and shops. However, Siem Reap’s rapid boom in an impoverished country comes with its ups and downs. As you read my blog, you will be introduced to all – the good, the bad and the ugly part of Siem Reap. I do not do urban legends. When something about Siem Reap or Cambodia is good, I will tell you it’s good, but when something about Siem Reap or Cambodia is bad, I will again tell you that it’s bad. My reports and reviews are painfully honest because I value you as a reader and would rather you to know the whole truth, even if political correctness dictates to leave some of the less flattering parts out. Welcome to the real Siem Reap!

Tuk Tuk Riding in Cambodia

Tuk Tuks represent the primary means of transportation for tourists visiting Cambodia. A Tuk Tuk is supposed to be a three wheeler, but the Cambodian version of it is a semi-enclosed trailer that’s rigged behind a motorcycle – often a moped. Tuk Tuk riding is inexpensive and widely available all over the place. It will likely be the most used, if not solely used means of transportation for vast majority of tourists visiting Cambodia.

I have made a reservation to stay at Two Dragons for a week after arrival to Cambodia and part of the deal was to provide free transport for me from the airport to the guesthouse. Most guesthouses and low to mid range hotels will offer free transport from the airport and this transport is basically always provided by Tuk Tuks. Unless you are staying in a high end hotel with rooms ranging in three digit numbers per night, in which case you will get a ride in a taxi (aka an actual car).

While Tuk Tuks are omnipresent, Taxis are virtually invisible in Cambodia. After a few weeks of living here I have not seen one, but I know they do exist. Upscale establishment offer taxi transportation for their patrons, but as average tourist, you will not see a single one.

My First Ride in Tuk Tuk

After I have gone through Cambodian immigration and got my Visa on Arrival I walked out of the Siem Reap International Airport and straight into the hands of vulture like locals. It was puring cats and dogs outside and it was dark so Tuk Tuk drivers were all over every tourist who stepped outside with offers to take care of their transport. I opened the door and got swarmed by money hungry Cambodians who are on an endless mission to squeeze as much out of every tourist as possible. People of Cambodia are impoverished so there are hardly any hard feelings, but as a savvy traveller who knows the drill, I respectfully ignored every single one of them. I did imagine ranks of unsavvy tourists walking out behind me – all vulnerable and lost in a new country. Many have surely fall victims to the schemes of these Tuk Tuk drivers who know every single trick which works on a tourist and utilize it without remorse.

I knew I had my ride arranged so for me it was only a question of ploughing through the crowds of money hungry locals and watching out for a paerson standing out there somewhere holding a sign with my name. He was all the way in the back and up to the last minute I had people breathing down my neck to get me take a ride with them. Not only would they want to overcharge a tourist for a ride to town, but they’d also want to take the tourist to a guesthouse or a hotel which pays them the highest commission (if you ask a Tuk Tuk driver to get you to the best place, they will only and solely take you to the place that pays them the most in commission fees for each paying customer. Never otherwise).

Riding Tuk Tuk in the Rain

Once I have tracked down the Tuk Tuk driver holding a sign with my name, I told him I was Mark and he ran to get his Tuk Tuk and park it by the side of the road where I was standing as it was still under the roof. Sky was truly pissing that rain down without any shame. My driver put on the helmet and a raincoat, hopped on his moped and pulled over by me. I sat inside the trailer which is not fully enclosed so the seat was partially wet and rain was pounding me from both sides, I sat my main bag on the wetter seat opposite of me and held my camera bag on my lap. We took off and rode through the dark. I was actually a lucky one being within that semi-enclosed trailed. Even though I still got rained on from the sides, I just thought of poor driver who was riding that Tuk Tuk unprotected, facing the rain form the seat of his motorcycle.

The ride from the airport to the guesthouse wasn’t long. About 10 minutes or so, suggesting that the airport is not far from Siem Reap at all. Tuk Tuks don’t ride too fast. It’s a bloody moped that can go at max maybe 40 or 50 km/h plus it has a trailer to haul so I doubt the speed was any higher than that.

By the time we made it to the Two Dragons Guesthouse, it was already past 11pm local time. The guesthouse was quiet, but I was expected. A girl who was waiting for me at the reception took me to my room and turned on the air-conditioning as it was hot. I must have looked tired as hell (and I was) because she said no more. She just looked at me and left to leave me alone so I can get some rest. There was always tomorrow to go through formalities.

Even though pick up from the airport was to be provided for free by Two Dragons guesthouse as I have made a reservation to stay at the establishment for a week, I gave my Tuk Tuk driver a mighty tip of $1. It may sound like a laughable amount to pay to someone for hassle of sitting on a motorcycle in heavy rain to drive my fat ass to a guesthouse, but it is not so in Cambodia. Mighty $1 bill can take care of one local family for a day.

My first Tuk Tuk ride and an initiation to Cambodia with proper down pour of rain was successfully concluded. Let the adventure begin.