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Cambodia - The Mild West Of Asia

By Gordon Sharpless


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Having just finished reading “Cambodia ­ The Wild West Of Asia” by Phil Ross, I cannot with any semblance of good conscience allow this piece to stand without comment. I have lived and worked in Cambodia off and on for six years and the Cambodia which Phil Ross describes is a Cambodia which exists nowhere but in the overactive imaginations of those who yearn for the thrill of extreme travel yet lack the gumption to actually fulfill these fantasies, were it even possible to do so (well, a holiday in Iraq does spring to mind). The article which Mr. Ross has written for us serves only to promote a false and arguably damaging image of Cambodia as it portrays the country as some kind of contemporary wild west shooting gallery suitable only for reincarnations of Judge Roy Bean and Wyatt Earp; and this is most certainly not the Cambodia in which I live and work and have spent six years traveling to every far flung corner. I couldn’t help but wonder if the author simply watched the movie “City of Ghosts” and assumed that this accurately describes Cambodia in 2004.

In the name of fairness, I will at this juncture give credit where it’s due - the author’s observations of the sanook scene in Cambodia are for the most part accurate and could serve benefit to those with a need or desire to know. It’s also not my place to take exception to the author’s opinions on Cambodia or its people. Opinions are just that, and everyone has and is entitled to at least one.

That said, it is tempting to correct every erroneous point offered by Mr. Ross, but as the inaccuracies are so numerous and rife, the endeavor would be reckless in its performance and certainly tedious to read.

But I would like to make a few general points to correct some of the more glaring errors in “Cambodia ­ The Wild West Of Asia.”

The author raises ad nauseum the issue of personal safety and crime, describing Cambodia as a lawless country served only by street justice at its crudest level. For the record, I have traveled in every province of the country except one and by almost every means possible. The only real danger in venturing outside of Phnom Penh and onto the nation’s highways (sic) is road accidents. Any suggestion that travel into the provinces is dangerous should be stuffed into a time capsule and sent back to 1996.

As for urban dangers, I have spent countless nights out late in Phnom Penh as well as in the provincial capitals. I have stumbled drunk along the streets of Phnom Penh, hung out in disreputable places and with disreputable people. I have never been robbed nor have I ever seen the business end of a gun or even heard one fired in anything other than in a
celebratory fashion, and even that was back in the err, halcyon days of 1998. I think the author’s imagination has seen fit to interpret the backfiring of an ill-tuned motorbike engine as gunfire in the streets.

A major campaign was undertaken several years ago to rid the nation of guns and few people now carry them. They are illegal and people can and do go to jail for possessing them. In six years I have never been pulled over, met with a gun, nor had money demanded from me.

Mr. Ross also appears never to have had any dealings with the Cambodian police, the nation’s laws, or its justice system. Cambodia has laws. Many of them. And they are enforced. And the Cambodian police who enforce these laws do so at times more professionally and diligently then their counterparts in Thailand. I, and most of the expats residing in Cambodia I am acquainted with (primarily educated, functioning, and generally sane business owners), have had at one time or another found ourselves with need to enlist the services of the local police. In more cases than not, we received professional, attentive, and honest service. Given a choice, under most circumstances I would rather deal with the Cambodian police than the Thai police. Yes, Cambodia has corruption in its legal system and in its police force, as does Thailand, the USA, the UK, France, and just about any other country that might come to mind.

Despite earlier cautions to myself not to dig too deeply in exposing the fallacies presented in “Cambodia ­ The Wild West Of Asia,” please allow me these few indulgences of some particularly glaring errors:

-“True genocide only took place twice last century ­ during WW2 with the Nazis against the Jews / Gypsies / Homosexuals / Other undesirables and during the late 1970’s in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge.” Do we assume the author has not heard of a country called Rwanda?
-“Even the best hotels are dusty, rundown, bare and primitive.” Apparently Mr. Ross neglected to visit either of the Raffles hotels, the Sofitel in Siem Reap, the Intercontinental or any of the other international class establishments in Cambodia. Accommodation here is consistent with Thailand in that you get what you pay for and what you get for $25 in Thailand is about what you get for $25 in Cambodia.
-“Angkor Wat is one of the most significant and important Buddhist holy sites in Asia.” Actually it’s Hindu, as are most of the Angkor monuments.

Finally the author suggests that, “If this submission has whet your appetite and you want to do a little more homework then I would suggest you get your hands on a copy of “Off the rails in Cambodia” by Amit Gilboa.” Off the Rails is indeed an entertaining read but it does not offer much of a glimpse into the macrocosm of expatriate life in Cambodia. It does, however, offer a glimpse into the microcosm of expatriate life in Cambodia for the few characters in which he wrote about.

I would suggest alternatively that if one is interested in learning more about Cambodia and from an accurate source that they visit talesofasia.com. Yes, the website is mine, but if I’ve held your attention this far, why stop now?
 

Stickman's thoughts:

When the original piece from Phil came in I was actually going to send it over to Gordon to put some comments on the end but for various reasons I didn’t.  Anyone interested in Cambodia should check out Gordon’s site.

The author of this article can be contacted at: gordon@talesofasia.com

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