Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Cambodia Book of the Dead – About a Sinister and Cynical Book


I was intrigued by the first book in a Cambodia setting so I went on to read another one that had a few good reviews on goodreads.com. This one is by a German author named Tom Vater who wrote his novels in English. He studied English literature in England where he got his English language skills. His German language background shines through with the occasional literal translation of German sayings and similes. Native speakers might sometimes be wondering at that but in general it does not diminish the book’s overall readability. His style of the first few pages is reminiscent of some classic American noir writers like James Elroy. He doesn’t come even close to the dry style of an Elmore Leonhard or the sarcasm of a Carl Hiassen.

The story is set in 2003 in the seaside town of Kep. Maier, a former war correspondent turned private detective, was hired to bring back the wayward son and heir of a rich German family who bought into a dive shop in Kep to get away from the constraints of a staid Hamburg upper class family. Vater narrates a lot of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge history and the fact that many old Khmer Rouge fighters and generals are still very much involved in the daily running of affairs in Cambodia at that time. In Kep it is a general Tep who seems to be styled after a notorious Khmer Rouge general named Tak who in the 90ies after the UNTAC-sponsored elections attacked a train and took three Western young tourists hostage and later killed them. In fact, former Khmer Rouge are still very much present in today’s Cambodia too but the number is slowly decreasing on account of natural attrition. For the most part they have turned into self-styled, often very successful, rich capitalists. Stone-age communism had never been part of their lives, now, had it?

He depicts the desolate and depressing life that some Western expatriates led at that time not only in Kep but almost all over Cambodia. Cambodia, because of it lawlessness at the time, was a haven that attracted social outcasts from Western society and lured many a Western backpacker into the life of drugs and cheap sex – which even to this day is motive enough for quite a few young Western people to settle in this country. The writer of this blog lived in Cambodia from 1990 until 1994 and part of 1995 and had traveled to Cambodia many times after 2002, has been living here since 2010, and is very familiar with the events that took place during those years.

The author’s historical excursions are mostly correct. However, his description of the old Bokor casino is pure fiction. Apart from a few hardy young tourists hardly anyone ventured up that potholed broken path of what was left of a previously fine paved road. The casino was inaccessible for fear of collapse. The walls were pock-marked with bullet holes dating back to the time this mountain served as a hideout for the Khmer Rouge. Guards prevented tourists from entering.

The scene of some occult celebration in the casino and Maier’s being clubbed unconscious there seems a little far-fetched. His German quarry and he rode up to Bokor on their mopeds all alone with not a soul in sight but then, all of a sudden, you had quite a few people populating the scene, the guards, a Russian expatriate, the policeman he had met in Kep had shown up at the casino out of nowhere, not to mention the mysterious Khmer beauty and the general’s son who partook in that occult scene.

There was a lot of talk of investing in a golf course in the national park there, which in 2003 may have just been a rumor but there were no active plans under way at that time. Nobody really thought of investing in Cambodia at that time to begin with. After the 1997 coup d’├ętat by Hun Sen and the grenade attack on the opposition leader and the 2003 riots against Thai property the country was considered unsafe for any serious investment. Only some fool-hardy adventurers tired of their Western dreary life used what little money they had to open a (oftentimes girlie) bar or a small restaurant there.

Of course, now in 2018 we know that the rumors were not without foundation as the road is now paved and there is indeed a new casino, hotel, a golf course, etc. There was no involvement in the development of Bokor Mountain by former Khmer Rouge members. It has once again become a popular destination not only for tourists but for Khmer people on holidays and weekends.

Tourism in Cambodia did not develop on a larger scale until 2008. There were no hotels on Rabbit Island. Backpackers slept in fishing families’ homes, not in cheap guesthouses like nowadays. There was one major hotel in Kep at that time – the Beach House, which was run by an Australian lady with her Khmer husband. Of course, you had the odd bar in a wooden shack run by some run-down Westerner. A lot of them knew how to tell a tall tale, like the bar owner of that expat bar, a Vietnam vet who told of Vietnamese soldiers who had syringes filled with heroin strapped to their arms and when they were killed the heroin was used by the GIs to shoot up. Come on - give me a break!

The first part of the book deals mostly with the description of Kep and its strange assortment of people, both local and foreign. The second part of the book takes you on a wild ride. The private eye meets up with the sinister and powerful former Khmer Rouge general. Following a dinner invitation to Rabbit Island Vater is received by black-clad Khmer Rouge girls with AK47s, and sitting down with Tep he is unexpectedly and incongruously interrogated by a character called White Spider, who turns out to be a former German SS-officer. This German suspects he is some sort of spy working for whichever secret service, out to destroy the little nest he has built for himself there. Vater is subsequently drugged and inexplicably ends up some 550 km north in Siam Reap. As the story develops it movers farther and farther away from the original quest he was charged with, getting that son home. Instead he gets drugged repeatedly, has some life-threatening encounters with the SS-man’s thugs, uncovers a secret project by the SS-villain to train young gullible orphaned Khmer girls into assassins. There is also a Khmer lady with a German passport who obviously hired a contract killer. Who she want to have killed  is never revealed. On her trip to Cambodia she herself gets killed by people unknown, which is also never clearly revealed. There are a few of these holes in Vater’s story.

 It is not worth going into further details as the story is so wildly unbelievable that it verges on some fantasy horror novel. Of course, the author is German so it might appear only logical to him to paint the two mean characters as survivors of two genocidal regimes of the 20th century.

It seems that after the first part the author ran out of ideas how to create a mystery plot out of the search and attempt to return that wayward son, after he found him, saw that the son was in trouble already, and was deeply in love with a prostitute. So what could follow from that? Maybe a kidnapping with a demand for ransom might have been more logical but would have been too much run-of-the-mill stuff? The Khmer Rouge and SS-angle seemed to be too tempting for the author. Of course, all of these evil characters end up dead as the title suggests.

I am sure there are readers who will like this book. I am not one of them.


A few pics from scenes described in the book.
 Sambo -the only elephant alive in Phnom Penh at the time that tourists could ride.

2012 – Sihanouk’s Retreat on Bokor mountain
2003 – The casino ruins

2012 – The casino being renovated

2018 - Bokor Palace



Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Hunters in the Dark – About a Novel set in Cambodia

Hunters in the Dark book cover


I am an avid reader and except for the occasional context of the Vietnam War I really haven’t read a book that is set in Cambodia. Of course, I read a couple or so written by Cambodian authors but they always dealt with the Pol Pot era and its aftermath. Although one would have to understand that the aftermath of that era is still continuing. As an expat having lived here for 4 year in the early 90ies and now for 8 years I can attest to that. One encounters the intrinsic consequences of that era daily.

I once tried one book that was written by a British expat but that was so lame and badly written that I stopped it after about 20 or 30 pages.

Recently, however, an expat forum pointed out a few websites that would have mystery books set in Cambodia. So I downloaded a few of them, one of which had the a. m. title.  The author is Lawrence Osborne, a British expat living in Bangkok. This author is of some acclaim and his books are well-worth reading. I just finished reading this book.

There is this 28-year-old English teacher who comes to Cambodia on his summer break. He comes by land from Bangkok via Pailin. He is hard-up and promptly wins $2,000 on his first night in one of the many casinos dotting the border towns in Cambodia. He then hires a driver who takes him to see the local sights where he meets an American fellow nicely decked out in a white suit and a pair of expensive shoes.

The American invites him to his house to stay there so he wouldn’t have to sleep in one of the dingy hotels in town. I don’t want to spoil it by giving out too many details but our nice young Englishman meets with a few surprises there that he could have done without.

He also copes with those surprises in a most unlikely fashion borne out of a premature world-weariness. Arriving in Phnom Penh he is looking for a job so he can support himself and luckily he finds it right away, practically on the same day. A doctor is looking for a tutor for his 25-year-old daughter. She is a medical doctor who studied in France and happens to speak English quite fluently. The need for a tutor is quite superfluous but the doctor wants her to improve her English anyway. The doctor is so nice that he even gives him $500 on that first meeting. The young people go out together and promptly fall in love ending up having sex the first night. The father is quite wealthy with a mental clinic for depressed people. Of course, in Cambodia only the very rich can afford such a treatment and the book is a little short on detail about that but it appears as if the rich tend to send their spoilt offspring there, getting them treated for the ills boredom causes. Otherwise, mental illness is a somewhat unexplored field in Cambodia to begin with. You can hardly find psychologists or psychiatrists. One can read almost daily about some horrendous crime, murder, rape of small children, etc., that one wonders whether they even recognize that there may be some form of mental disorder involved there. They just stick them in a prison cell, and you never read about them again.

The father is a former Khmer Rouge doctor who doesn’t fail to state that he was forced into this unless he wanted to die. Even the Khmer Rouge needed doctors. The daughter, obviously a pretty thing, is heavily influenced by her time and studies in Paris where she also had a French lover, in other words, a fully enlightened young Khmer girl.

 There are some more twists in the whole story which I won’t divulge here as it would really spoil it for any future reader.

This book is well written and got a rave review in the New York Times, in fact, it is so well written that one wants to keep reading it in one sitting. However, as an expat in Cambodia who has traveled the breadth and width of the country, who has lived in a Cambodian, not expat, environment all this time, having a Khmer wife of impeccable background, speaks, though cannot write, the language, I would like to point out a few, let’s call them, implausibilities. One could say it is about the transformation of a respectable young English teacher into a drifter.

Would a young man get plastered and do drugs with a fellow Westerner whom he just met, never mind the nice clothes and his educational background? The American is a Yale man, you know, but a conman nonetheless.

The doctor is really generous and it appears he is also of Chinese descent. It is hardly likely that he would advance the young man $500 just because he liked the young man’s looks and demeanor. Equally unlikely is that he would hire a tutor for a daughter who speaks the language fluently already. The foremost thought in Khmer parents’ minds is to get an equally well-situated husband of superior standing for their daughter. A fly-by-night English teacher hardly fits that bill. He gets invited to family dinners, which is not unusual as the Khmer people are very hospitable, but such an invitation is nothing but a courtesy. Sometimes Khmer educated people would like to discuss life in the West with an educated foreigner, but that’s the extent of it.

Although the girl has some Western experience she was raised as an upper-class Khmer daughter and would be very conscious of her reputation. By ostentatiously cavorting with a foreigner she would certainly harm that reputation among upper-crust Khmer society of which she undeniably is a firm member. Of course, it happens that some rich Khmer girls do have flings with foreigners but this is usually carried on in secret or in another city. After all, Khmer husbands still value their future wives’ virginity very highly, so as to make a union almost impossible if he were to find out that she has been sleeping around. Sleeping around is only for the lower classes and the poor girls who can only gain from a relationship with a foreigner, or so they believe. Sometimes, there is a rude awakening, though. Young beautiful Khmer girls get a rich Khmer husband – they have the choice of many suitors. Poor, less beautiful girls seek out the naive, often older Western man who can’t find a young woman in the West for exactly what they lack to get a nice beautiful Khmer girl – money.

The writer published the book in 2015, so probably researched it two or three years before that date. He clearly was in Cambodia before the 2013 election. There were quite a few demonstrations at that time and he mentioned some violence in Freedom park near the place the young man was staying. A lot has changed in the meantime. The last 5 years have seen a tremendous development in Cambodia and life has become a lot more consumer-oriented. Political life has come to a virtual standstill. A few of the locales were not described quite correctly but that does not affect the overall book. After all, most of the readers would not know anyway.

The American fellow travels up to a mountain lodge and encounters youths with guns guarding a bridge as if they wanted to extort some money from him for being able to cross. Despite his fear he just pushes through. In Cambodia those youths could have been in their early twenties as Khmer people look very young with teen-like face until their thirties. It is quite common that private companies hire them as guards and they do sometimes carry AK-47s but in general are quite harmless. The writer made it appear very dangerous to travel on country roads in Cambodia. It is not. It was different in the 90ies but if it is one thing authoritarian regimes know how to do is bring security to the roads, if not safety, judging by the many traffic fatalities in Cambodia. So it is very unlikely that people would get held up on the roads as opposed to Phnom Penh where bag snatching is still very much present.

There is one distasteful character in the book that is very aptly described. He is a policeman on the make. This type of people is still around and one best not get involved in any shape or form with them, be it as perpetrator or a victim of a (even petty) crime or even in the context of a traffic accident with injured or even dead victims.

He also depicts the down-and-out foreigners in Cambodia quite well. Many a native English speaker with a TOEFL certificate comes to SE Asia, or all of the underdeveloped world for that matter, to teach English as a second language as they usually wouldn’t qualify for anything else. They often just scrape by on their $7.50 to $10 an hour in one of the many private schools, of which the majority would not make the cut anywhere else. Getting a gig as a private tutor for a few well-heeled clients would get them in the range of better pay but it is too unreliable to be based on as a long-term solution. It is true that Khmer people usually regarded Westerners with some sort of amazement about their behavior and with some curiosity, sometimes even admiration. The Westerners, despite their sometimes grungy looks, surely  must have some money. How else could they afford to come to Cambodia? Later on the influx of the dirty, drug-consuming, sex-starved detritus of the Western world changed their perception dramatically. Now they look down on them with mild amusement or detest them outright. If you are a businessman, dress accordingly, their approach differs hugely and is usually quite deferential – nobody should be fooled by their nice smiles, though.

Reading the papers I am really surprised by the many young foreigner deaths from overdosing. So his description of one of them floating down the Battambang river every month or so doesn’t seem exaggerated at all.

There is a lot of introspective ruminating, sometimes to the point of being depressing, but it distinguishes this book from a mere crime novel making it a very thoughtful read. One thing is absolutely true – the belief in ghosts and the afterlife is omnipresent in Khmer society.

I was not quite happy with the ending, especially concerning the Khmer girls in the story. I don’t believe either one would act or react that way, especially the daughter after a very distressing experience towards the end.

Despite all this, it is eminently readable.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Disposal of an Unwelcome Patient




This happened a while ago in Phnom Penh. In short: A drunk soldier riding on his motorbike in Tuol Kork in Phnom Penh hit the median divider and crashed. An ambulance took him to Calmette where they determined the patient had died.
The ambulance then took him back to the exact site of the accident and placed the dead body at the spot on the road where it happened and where the family was still gathered.
My personal guess is that the hospital told the ambulance to take the body to the family so they could prepare for the burial. Those dumb drivers then just dropped him back on the road.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Trip Advisor


Concluding my posts about my experience with the ownership of a boutique hotel in Sihanoukville I would like to touch on the world’s largest review website.

I had not paid much attention to this site before. When I traveled (mostly for business in the U. S.), I used Expedia to choose my hotels and car rentals. Since the majority of the hotels were chain-owned it was not hard to pick one as you usually know exactly what you are getting determined by the standards the chains impose on the individual properties.

But when my friend and partner opened a boutique hotel in Phnom Penh we assiduously followed this website to see the latest ranking. As it happened that hotel was one of the first boutique hotels in Phnom Penh (the Blue Lime) it almost exclusively got rave reviews and a very high ranking. Over the years with the increase in small boutique hotels there that changed but it is still in the top ten most of the time. So when we opened our hotel we also checked TA what guests would have to say about us – mostly positive too though.

In order to increase our position and visibility on TA we signed up for the business account at a cost of $80/month. We thought this was good advertising money. As result we indeed got a better exposure as a sponsored hotel. However, when we got a few outright untruthful and personally disparaging reviews that TA wouldn’t remove we canceled that account. Lo and behold, since we had been in business for over 2 years at that time already it didn’t have any effect whatsoever on our ranking. Even the hotel has been closed for 3 months we are still ranked #15 on their site.

The negative side of TA is that you don’t need to stay at the hotel to write a review. Although you need to confirm that you are not affiliated with the property but who can check that. This leaves the door wide open for reviews written by friends or for money, which according to news reports happens quite frequently.

Once I complained about an insulting review by someone who hadn’t stayed but the guest complained about the reception. TA responded that the guest’s experience with the hotel is sufficient for the review. The insult was not deemed as such. So what could I do? Reviews don’t get weighted by the guests’ length of stay or the category of the hotel. I believe someone who stayed a minimum of 3 days can certainly make more precise observations than someone staying only one night, e.g. from 10 pm to 7am. They may evaluate the rooms, beds, etc. but most certainly not all the features of a hotel. Likewise the category of the hotels – people expect an inordinately high standard for very low prices. As business people we know this is just not possible. A high standard does have its price, in Cambodia this would start at $70 to $80 a night. Good staff is more expensive, so is fresh food, a well-stocked bar, a clean pool, etc. What a lot of people don’t understand is that they can’t get a full-service hotel for $25 a night. People need to go to a guesthouse without service and untrained staff for that. So hotel reviews really need to be taken with a grain of salt.

There is a British website (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) that reviews only luxury hotels (unfortunately). The owners of that site and their staff visit each hotel they list on their website. They are experts and their reviews can be trusted. I wish those huge companies like TA or the Priceline group would do the same with each hotel they list. They got sales staff in each country so why not use trained staff to check hotels before they are listed.

The hotel sector is the core of TA’s business but in comparison with the Priceline group it pales in terms of sales. The 450 million users currently don’t mean much for the sales volume.

People attribute to much importance to so-called peer reviews these days to begin with. But one must really differentiate between the ones on the hotel booking portals like booking.com and TA. More lopsided examples can be found in TA’s other categories, e. g. restaurants, localities, airlines, etc.

I do write reviews myself for the sole purpose of offsetting other clearly ridiculous reviews, especially about restaurants. I found the best example in Phnom Penh. A French restaurant was ranked #1 – the food is mediocre but the place is always packed, mostly by tourists and expats who can afford the higher than average price for Phnom Penh. #2, one wouldn’t believe it, is a hamburger place. Now hamburgers can taste great but nobody would ever think that they are gourmet food. There is no such thing as a gourmet hamburger. The best restaurants in town appear ranked in the 30ies. What does that tell you about  reviews. They are pretty much worthless. I tried out most of the top-ranked restaurants there and found only one satisfying. Most of them are rather pretentious and not really operated by trained chefs, excepting the top restaurants in Phnom Penh, Topaz and Malis. Which trained chef besides the ones working in luxury hotels would choose Cambodia for a career? It appears that people come to Cambodia not knowing how to make a living in this rather different culture. There are but a couple of options for them. They open a bar/restaurant or a hotel although they might have no experience in that sector. It is quite obvious that in general people are not gourmets; that doesn’t speak against them but they shouldn’t write about food. We recently traveled to Paris and Munich. Michelin-starred restaurants didn’t show up in both TA listings among the top 50. So again, don’t go by TA choosing a restaurant. Check the Michelin guide online (no Cambodian listing) which has listings for low-priced but good restaurants too, or Fodors. Forget TA. It’s not worth the trouble.

Now check out the airlines section on TA. They rank airlines with five balloons that normal people haven’t even heard of, ie. Air North, Air Chathams, Tajik Airlines. So where is Singapore Airlines, Thai, Lufthansa, British Airways? At least Emirates and Singapore Airlines can be found among the top 20. Again, not a tool to go by.

Now if you do write reviews TA appreciates that very much. They encourage you to continue and send you frequent emails what a good job you did, how many people read your reviews, and you become a senior member after a mere 2 or 3 reviews. My goodness, the whole thing is a sham, come to think of it. They make their money from advertising, the business accounts, from commissions for bookings made on their site, and from Google hits. This may be a good business model but it’s not a consumer site. For that you better visit consumer reports or similar sites.

Like most top internet travel companies TA is American and was part of the Expedia group, which is the largest online travel booking site in the world followed by the Priceline group and Sabre. TA became a publicly traded company in 2011 after being spun off from Expedia. Their revenues were $1.56 billion in 2017 – still a formidable size, no doubt, but the online booking market is estimated at $560 billion, which is roughly 50% of the entire travel market of over $1 trillion.

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