Vol. VIII No. 19 - Tuesday
May 12 - May 18, 2009

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

Cambodia revisited - Part 4

Free insurance scheme to boost Thailand


Cambodia revisited - Part 4

David Bennett
The Seabreeze Hotel is on a straight stretch of road across from Independence Beach. It’s a huge cream and blue painted building of indeterminate origins. It has that show-offish, status-shouting quality of Chinese late 20th century “architecture” but there is a strong Moroccan look about it. Could this be Cambodian architecture?

One of the vendors pictured in Sihanoukville’s Central Market.

So far I have been unable to determine Cambodian cuisine. Yes, of course, there are offerings in restaurants labelled ‘Cambodian food’ but none of it has any real quantifiable qualities; you couldn’t call it a cuisine. The same goes for the architecture. All the buildings are either 100% utilitarian Chinese or French Colonial or wooden, resort-type structures with temple motifs designed to house the Western tourist.
We have an absurdly huge room with a massive carved bed angled into the corner of the room. We have everything we need, all in one room. We have windows that you can look through and see the outside. These windows also double up as admission areas for natural light. Not until you have travelled round Cambodia staying in budget or mid range accommodation, will you be so overjoyed at the thought of a window or a working air conditioning unit. Across the road and down a little sandy track, the beach, about 200 metres of white sand, is deserted.
Looking around the hotel, it’s obviously about 20 years old and has been improved since being built. The top floor has a huge 65ft long, open sided area decked out with cane furniture, settees and arm chairs with purple and black cushions.
Just outside of our room is a small balcony with the same cane furniture and a table. We immediately decide this is our balcony and, although it would obviously get us thrown out of the hotel if we physically stopped other guests using it, we think we will get away with sternly moving an eyebrow or shuffling feet should any other guest be so insensitive as to think they can encroach.
In the evening we try the hamburger and chips and the fish and chips. Both excellent, cooked by the Khmer chef. The owners of the hotel, Robbie from British Columbia and Lulu from Australia confirm that they are responsible for the incredible improvements to the hotel, including a roof to cover the outside dining area, the upstairs lounging areas and the huge potted plants everywhere which shield out the sun.
I ask Robbie about the railway station, knowing deep down what the answer will be. Apparently no trains have run for some considerable time. Not only is Sihanoukville a town with a railway station but no trains it also turns out to be a town with an airport but no planes.
The airport, originally built by the Russians in the 1960’s, has opened and closed many times. The last time it opened was in 2007, but a plane crash (widely blamed on revengeful spirits) forced its closure yet again.
I think Kafka would feel quite at home in Cambodia. Speaking of Kafka, I wonder what he would have made of the Khmer Rouge trials that are reported daily and in depth in the Cambodian English language press?
Next day, I notice that the hard boiled duck eggs are safely tucked up in the fridge, and wonder for a split second why I am putting off eating them. Am I harbouring a thought, deep down, that there just might be hard boiled duck foetuses in those eggs?
Sihanoukville beach is perfect. We sit under a tree, catching up on some reading whilst pondering the Independence Hotel to our right. This huge (170$ a night), posh hotel replaced the original Independence Hotel that was apparently not only derelict and dirty but was also the biggest brothel in Cambodia. This was also one of Sihanoukville’s main killing areas in the time of the Khmer Rouge.
Although the KR was officially unseated as the government of Cambodia in 1979, they and their “achievements” live on. Reading the Phnom Penh Post, I am astounded to find that 70% of Cambodians have never heard of the KR, in spite of the fact that they killed at least 1 in 3 Cambodians in the most brutal way just a few decades ago
I decide to do a little reading about the Pol Pot, starting with a re-reading of Voices from S21 by David Chandler who also wrote Brother Number One. First discovery is that no one seems to have an exact figure for the number of Cambodians that Pol Pot and the KR killed. It ranges from 1 in3 to 1 in 5 of the population with actual numbers from 1.5 to 3 million.
Pol Pot came from a rich landowning family and discovered communism in Paris between 1949 and 1952. From 1956, after his return to Cambodia, he started a highly secret underground organisation called Angkor (or the ‘Organisation’) with Pol Pot himself going under the name of Brother Number One.
Pol Pot was very influenced by the Chinese and Chairman Mau, but considered them to be weak and ineffectual! He then decided that he was going do much better. This is where things seemed to go very seriously wrong.
The American bombing of Cambodia, starting in 1969 under President Richard Nixon, produced the chaotic conditions which enabled Pol Pot to bring down the royalist government. By 1970, the “Organisation” was battling to take over, and was so secretive that no one even knew who the leader was. The ‘unknown’ leader, in turn, was developing extreme paranoia and a completely insane vision of the sort of society he thought Cambodia should be. Having got this far with my reading I thought we should take a break and explore Sihanoukville town.
The town is about 20 minutes away by tuk-tuk and, as usual, the driver says “5 dollars- very far,” to which we reply, “We always pay 2 dollars – not very far.” He then says “OK”.
We are on a mission. We want to buy food. We have been travelling for a while and would like to stock up on eatables so that we do not have to always rely on restaurant food. Sihanoukville has a few mini-markets and a big central market. We find that in general the Orange supermarket is the most reliable, and manage to stock up on Hungarian salami, natural yoghurt, olives and some very dark authentic looking German rye bread (the perfect accompaniment to hard boiled duck eggs?) and some reasonable French wine for $5 a bottle (about 175 baht!).
We always carry a travel kettle - a highly recommended ‘Wellco all-purpose’, bought from Tesco Lotus for about 200 baht - a stash of Douwe Egberts’ Maccona coffee and a cafetiere. Apart from this, we have cutlery, plastic plates, and - it goes without saying - a good quality, sturdy corkscrew.
Next stop. The Central Market. This market is definitely ‘downmarket’ (Talat Tanin- where are you?), quite dirty, very overcrowded and the selection of produce is very limited. There are some very poor people here. On the other hand, everyone seems very happy.
We appear to be charged the correct amount for our carrots, tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers and we are given the correct change. Looking round, it’s like stepping back (or sideways) in time. Children playing with old plastic bottles on the ends of bits of string, about half the stall holders fast asleep in hammocks. It also feels very safe, despite the motorbikes driving down the clogged gangways!
Just outside the Central Market, we discover a phenomenon that is to haunt us on the rest of our travels in Cambodia -‘doing the same as everyone else’. Now, you can spot this in Chiang Mai. On the way to the airport you will often pass 20 identical stalls selling identical oranges at identical prices. Outside this Cambodian Central Market, there are 20 identical stalls offering car key cutting services!


Free insurance scheme to boost Thailand

Visitors to Thailand between May and October will automatically be insured and covered in case of riots under a Thai government-backed tourist insurance scheme aimed at boosting confidence in the destination.
The policy was initiated by the Tourism Council of Thailand (TCT) and came, according to TCT, in response to international insurance firms’ refusal to sell insurance coverage to visitors to Thailand, particularly in the case of riots.
TCT president, Kongkrit Hiranyakit, said the government had set aside 190.75 million baht (US$5.48 million) for the scheme. About 5.45 million foreign tourists were expected to visit Thailand during the six-month period, based on TCT’s estimation of 10.9 million tourists this year.
Under the scheme, Ministry of Tourism and Sports would be responsible for the insurance premium of US$1 per person for all visitors to Thailand between May and October.
“In case riots occur in Thailand during these months, visitors will be compensated for up to US$10,000 per person under three conditions – death, injury and trip inconvenience,” Kongkrit said.
He added the measure was just a short-term effort to restore visitor confidence. “The Thai government must work harder to draw long-term strategies to restore the country’s international image as a safe and secure tourism destination.” (TTG)

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