musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘tourism’

Welcome to Cambodia!

“Welcome to Cambodia!” said my Cambodian friend. “Don’t believe anything here.”

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With that utterance we clinked beer glasses and took hearty sips. My friend smiled and shook his head. “In Cambodia, you can’t believe anything the government says.”

“Join the club,” I replied. “What you say is true about almost every country on earth. You can’t trust any government.” And keep in mind, we were having this conversation last month, before the latest privacy controversy erupted in the USA.

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We toasted glasses again and decided that we needed to order more beer. Just another night in Siem Reap with friends. My Cambodian friends impress the hell out of me. Whether they are working or still studying in school, they don’t take things for granted. They take their duties seriously, diligently doing what they need to do. But it’s a hard life in Cambodia if you are not wealthy, and none of my friends would remotely qualify as well off. They’re just trying to keep their heads above the economic water, raising families or trying to help younger siblings and/or parents by working, or trying to stay in school. Two of the Try brothers are in their early twenties and still trying to finish high school. But that’s what happens when you drop out in the sixth grade and work for a few years to help earn money for your family.  

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Talking to my friends this time, it was obvious that some of them have become quite disillusioned and frustrated with the government’s many promises, most of which have not come to fruition. Despite an obscene amount of foreign aid pouring in each year, not to mention an increase in tourism in the past decade, Cambodia remains a very poor country. One of my friends dreams of going to the United States to work, thinking it to be some sort of economic paradise. I didn’t want to burst his bubble too harshly, but told him that life there is also “very difficult” for many people.

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We talked, we laughed, we drank more beer; talking about good times in the past and contemplating the uncertain future.

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Myanmar’s Tourism Dilemma

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It’s often said, “Be careful what you wish for,” and in the case of Myanmar’s burgeoning tourism industry, no truer words were ever spoken.

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In the past year or so, there have been incredible changes in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest, ran for election and won a seat in Myanmar’s parliament; the country’s president has engaged in various reforms and freed political prisoners; media restrictions have been lifted … and well, the world was watching all of these amazing developments, and all of a sudden many travelers want to visit the country. Perhaps too many.

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Due to this sudden spike in tourist arrivals, the country’s tourism industry is fraying at the seams. You can safely assume that all hotels in Myanmar have raised their rates compared to a year ago, but many have gone beyond simple seasonal rate hikes and have doubled or tripled the cost of a night’s stay. One reason for this rate ugliness is the simple fact that there is a shortage of hotel rooms. Supply and demand, don’t you know. If you are planning on visiting in the next month or two, but haven’t booked a room yet, well … good luck. You’re gonna need it. There may be no room at the inn for you, your spouse, and 2.5 kids.

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And it’s not only hotel rooms that are at a premium. Airplane flights, seats on boats, buses, and trains may also be hard to come by … and more expensive. Thinking of hiring a private car and driver to get from one town to another, or maybe the services of a tour guide who can speak your language with some competency? Once again, if you haven’t made those arrangements already, it’s probably too late. If nothing else, the good ones are taken.

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And what about, uh, eating? Most people have to do that at least a couple of times each day. But where will you eat? And much will it cost? I was talking to a woman who owns a restaurant in Yangon earlier this week and I mentioned that business must be very good lately. She let out a big sigh, and confirmed that yes, her place was very busy, but because there were so many tour groups descending on her place, it was placing extra demands on her staff; from cooks to waiters and managers. When you are used to serving a certain number of customers each night and all of a sudden that number triples, how will you handle it? Plus, the fact that tour groups comprise the majority of customers at her restaurant, many independent travelers found themselves either being turned away or having to wait a very long time to be served. Such is the price of success.

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Thus, I fear that anyone visiting Myanmar for the first time this year, or in the coming months, but not come away with the most positive of impressions. I’m sure they will be pleased by the friendliness and politeness of the locals, plus the fact that it’s an extremely safe country to visit, but it’s no longer a particularly affordable travel destination, and the quality of lodging and meals may not live up the standards of many veteran travelers. Also, there are still troublesome money issues: credit cards are not widely accepted, ATMs are just in the planning stages, and any US bank notes you wish to exchange must be in immaculate condition or they will be refused.

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Hopefully, this new wave of tourists will be very patient and considerate, realizing that they are visiting a country that is still getting its sea legs. But if they give Myanmar a chance, they may end up loving it.

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Baby Obama’s Shop

On the dirt road that leads to Tat Ein village, on the outskirts of Nyaungshwe in Shan State, is a brand new business: Baby Obama’s Shop. This is the first time I’ve noticed any sort of shop on that road, or anywhere near the vicinity of Tat Ein, but with the increasing number of tourists in the area, including some that make a short trek from town to see the primary school and monastery (and visit the famous “monk in the cave”) in this tiny village, I shouldn’t be shocked that someone would try to open up a stand and sell something. 

 

The shop was named by a local villager after her son, a 3-year-old whose nickname is, not surprisingly, Obama. Ah, the power of the global village! Both mother and baby are very friendly and polite, and thankfully haven’t reached the pushy “buy from me” stage yet. At this makeshift outdoor “shop” they sell a variety of local handicrafts (I almost bought an old Shan style knife for a friend one day; it may not have been an antique but it WAS rusty!), snacks, and bottles of water. Nothing you really have to have, but I like the idea of buying something and supporting enterprising villagers.

 

One morning when I cycling to the school (where I taught English classes for 3 days; more about that in a future post), I stopped to buy some paper fans as gifts for friends back in Bangkok. The father of the young woman who runs the shop noticed that the basket on my bike was loose (somehow a couple of screws had fallen out; blame that on the huge load of mangoes I put in there the day before) and offered to fix it for me. He didn’t have any screws, but using his practical village ingenuity, he fastened the basket with some heavy twine. Worked like a charm. Before leaving, this gentleman invited me to his home the next time I was in the village, and also offered me a handful of snack beans (that looked like black-eyed peas to me!), Whatever these beans are called, they were crunchy and delicious. With my basket now secure, I pedaled off towards the school, with grandpa, mama, and Baby Obama waving goodbye, urging me to come back again. You bet I will.

 

Bangkok’s Searches & Security

The biggest story — not to mention worry — here in Bangkok recently was the recent Valentine’s Day “bombing” by the so-called Iranian “terrorists”. To call what happened a terrorist bombing, though, may not be quite accurate; it was more like a few small explosions gone awry. Whatever the terminology, it did raise a few eyebrows — and perhaps singe a few in the process. Two weeks later, people are still wondering: was this some sort of Keystone Cops-like mishap or a real threat?

 

In case you missed it, in a nutshell, this is what happened: a couple of Iranian “visitors,” miffed that a Bangkok taxi driver refused to take them to where they asked to go, hurled a grenade — or a similar explosive device — at the taxi. Luckily, the driver was standing outside the taxi at the time and was not injured. His vehicle — as you can see from the photo above — was not so fortunate. Soon afterwards, a police car arrived on the scene (two amazing facts here: the fact that the cop arrived so quickly, and that he was not on a motorcycle, which is what almost all officers are seen driving in Bangkok) and one of the nutty Iranians hurled another grenade at that car too. However, this device ricocheted off the vehicle, hit the Iranian and exploded, blowing off both of his legs. He didn’t die and nobody else was injured, but his buddy was later arrested at the airport, waiting to board a flight to Malaysia — which is where I was when all this lunacy was taking place.

This incident happened in and around Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 71, which is not that far from where I live. In fact, one of my walking routes takes me through the neighborhood where these explosions happened. From newspaper accounts, three Iranian men where living at a rented house in that soi. Some observers think that the “bombs” were intended for the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, or more specifically, the Israeli ambassador. Coming in the wake of similar bomb attacks on “Israeli diplomatic targets” in India and Georgia, this led to all sorts of speculation and accusations, further ramping up the tensions between Iran and Israel … and putting Thailand right in the middle of the nasty feud. This sort of drama is definitely NOT what Thailand needs in order to restore the confidence of tourists after the horrific flooding late last year. What’s next; another massive Red Shirt rally? Actually, that’s a scarily plausible possibility too.

 

After all this bomb-bastic activity, the knee-jerk reaction from authorities has been “heightened security” around the city. In Thai terms, this means squads of police officers making random checks of bags — almost always those of foreigners — at “strategic” spots around town. Every other day it seems there is a photo in the newspaper of some grinning tourist in Bangkok having their bag examined by an equally gleeful police officer. Yeah, baby, having fun in Thailand!

For several years now, there have been regular bag searches on the subway system in Bangkok. But the total lack of thoroughness makes these checks a bit of a joke. As you pass through the electro-gate, a security guard will glance at your bag, maybe shine his or her flashlight in the general direction of the contents inside, and then motion you on. Next, please! I’ve never had one of my bags actually opened and searched. For some reason, the city’s other high-tech transport system, the BTS Skytrain, does not even bother with bag searches at all. We wouldn’t anything resembling consistency here, would we?

But it’s the other type of random bag searches that are a definite source of frustration — and irritation — for expat residents. Previously, these bag checks were ostensibly for the purpose of uncovering narcotics of some sort, but nowadays “security” is given as the reason. I’ve been stopped by police twice in the past decade. The first time I was stopped while walking to the boat pier and my bag was pawed through by an overzealous cop; the other time I was on the back of a motorcycle, stopped at a red light, and interrogated by yet another grim-looking stormtrooper: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Blah, blah, blah. Totally useless.

A few weeks ago there was a letter-to-the-editor in the Bangkok Post from an African-American resident who was recently stopped by police in the Prakonong district of Bangkok and asked to produce his passport. Like most foreign residents, the man sensibly had a photocopy of his passport but not the real thing. That apparently did not satisfy the local copper, no doubt suspecting this guy was an “African drug dealer”, and he ended up taking the American to the local police station for further interrogation. Or was the cop — as so often happens here in this magic kingdom — just looking to have his palmed greased with some cash? Another one of my regular customers, a 40-ish European man, was stopped in front of Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit and asked for ID. Again, there was no reason for this guy being singled out for a search. At what point does “good security” cross over to being nothing but sheer harassment? It definitely takes the shine off Thailand’s sanook façade. Of course there is a need for improved security if the situation warrants it, but searching the bags of random pedestrians doesn’t strike me as anything close to being an effective tactic.

One member of the opposition Democrat party was quoted in the Bangkok Post last week as saying: “Some cabinet members compared the (Iranian bombing) suspect with vocational students engaged in a brawl,” he said. “Don’t make it sound like a trivial matter.” Actually, all these so-called “brawls” among vocational students in the Bangkok ARE a very serious matter. Several times each month there are reports of fights between students from rival schools that end in bloodshed. The perpetrators might be driving motorcycles, they might be riding on a bus with their “gang”, or they might be on foot. Whatever the scene, an argument ensues, knives or guns come out, and someone is either injured badly or killed. These are not rare cases, but alarmingly frequent occurrences of stupidity and intimidation. It may not rank up there with Iranian terrorism suspects in terms of shock value, but it’s certainly not “trivial.” In fact, it’s a big problem that does concern Bangkok residents. Maybe they should be posting these security guards at the entrances of the vocational schools and bus stops.

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