Monday, November 30, 2009

Motorcycle sales gain traction in Cambodia after slow year

PHNOM PENH, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) -- Motorcycle dealers in the capital Phnom Penh say sales have finally started to pick up following this year's downturn prompted by the global economic crisis, as buyers spend money generated in the provinces on upgrading to new models that have recently entered the market for 2010, local media reported on Monday.

Kim Chhay, one of the many dealers who operate on Phnom Penh's Sihanouk Boulevard, was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post as saying that sales had risen between 10 and 20 percent since October "due to demand for new models" of brands including Honda, which he said had recently launched its 2010 range.

Having seen sales plummet from around 100 units a month to between 30 to 40 during the first 10 months of 2009, he said sales have climbed. "Now we're selling around 60 motorbikes per month."

A reduction in retail prices had also spurred demand, he said. Last year's Honda Dreams sold for 1,700 U.S. dollars to 1,800 U.S. dollars per unit, compared with about 1,500 U.S. dollars for the new series.

Taing Ang, another dealer in the capital, said that people from the provinces who had completed land transactions were propping up demand, adding that Honda in particular had seen an upswing in sales.

"The Suzuki series hasn't seen an improvement yet," he said.

Vouch Lay, who deals Suzukis, said she had not seen sales pick up, blaming the rising demand for Honda's newly released models. "I don't see any recovery yet," she said.

She added that Suzuki was due to begin a new promotion shortly, which she hoped would "spur the number of sales to improve on the current situation".

Demand for motorcycles in Cambodia was expected to fall to 100,000 units this year from the previous 140,000 units, according to Matoba Micifumi, managing director of Yamaha Motors Cambodia Co, who previously said Yamaha motorcycle sales had dropped 25 percent in the first quarter.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rare crocs found hiding in plain sight in Cambodia


BANGKOK — Conservationists searching for one of the world's most endangered crocodile species say they have found dozens of the reptiles lounging in plain sight — at a wildlife rescue center in Cambodia.

DNA taken from 69 crocodiles housed in the moats of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center showed nearly 50 percent were Siamese crocodiles, which until recently were believed to have become extinct in the wild, researchers said Wednesday.

"For the first time in Cambodia, we have a captive population of animals that we know 100 percent are purebred Siamese crocodiles," said Adam Starr, who manages the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Program, a joint effort between the government and Fauna & Flora International. The Washington, D.C.-based conservation group Wildlife Alliance also took part.

Once common throughout Southeast Asia, the Siamese crocodile or crocodylus Siamensis is locally extinct in 99 percent of the areas it once roamed and is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Much of the wild population was wiped out by habitat loss and poaching.

Those left in the wild — thought to be less than 250, with nearly all in Cambodia and the rest in Indonesia and Vietnam — face the new threat of hydropower dams being built in two of their three known habitats in the country.

Starr said the discovery of the captive population would give conservationists new options for breeding and reintroducing the crocodiles into the wild, most likely in places not affected by the dams. He said up to 60 crocodiles a year could be released into areas where they once thrived.

DNA analysis, which was done at Thailand's Kasetsart University, is necessary because it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between Siamese crocodiles and the hybrid crocodile species that are also housed at the center.

Nhek Ratanapech, director of the wildlife center, said he was surprised to learn that so many of the crocodiles turned out to be pure Siamese.

"Before we conducted the DNA testing, we thought perhaps only three or four of them in the zoo were Siamese crocodiles," he said.

Siamese crocs are said to be a bit smaller at just under 10 feet (3.5 meters) than hybrids, and their snouts are shorter and wider.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Samart builds Cambodian empire without Thaksin's help

While rumours fly that Samart's ties with ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen are close enough to fake the arrest of its employee, an investigation by The Nation tells a different story.

Samart embarked on expansion into the neighbouring country through Charoenrath Vilailuck's personal connection to Cambodian politician-cum-businessman Sun Chanthol.

Chanthol, a Harvard University graduate, was known for his business smarts. He was the public-works and transport minister until last year.

Charoenrath is the older brother of Watchai, CEO of Samart.

Through the connection with Charoenrath, Cambodia handed the company a concession for the nascent mobile-phone market, and Cambodia Samart Communications was born in 1992.

The following year, Cambodia Shinawatra was set up as a subsidiary of Shin Satellite to penetrate the mobile-phone market in the neighbouring country.

Telecom insiders recall Chanthol was a close aide to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was prime minister before Hun Sen took power.

"The connection led to the air-traffic-control concession going to Samart in 2001," a source said. "Samart indeed entered the country before Thaksin."

In that year, Cambodia Air Traffic Services (CATS) was formed to run the 22-year concession. Thaksin was present at the ceremony when Cambodia extended the concession from 15 years to 22.

Back then, Shin Corp, Thaksin's family business, faced troubles in expanding there when the mobile-phone concession was shortened.

From CATS, Samart moved to building a power plant to support the Siam Cement Group's new plant there.

The Vilailuck family also won a 99-year concession to open a museum in Siem Reap, but it has performed badly financially, because visitors tend to flock to a South Korean museum nearby.

This explains why Watchai was in the hot seat and cried for help when his business was tampered with by the Cambodian government. Without any political involvement now, he is seeking to further distance Samart from politics.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cambodia - what road rules?

A stint in Cambodia teaches you to appreciate road rules.

Traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, the give-way rule and seat belts reveal themselves as true blessings.

In my time in Cambodia I was honked at, swerved past, almost run over and driven into the path of an oncoming concrete truck by an unrepentant tuk tuk driver.

A six-hour trip from the capital Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was a game of dodge-the oncoming-death-trap. It was no surprise to learn that Cambodia has one of the highest rates of road fatalities in Asia.

Kids play fight on the side of the roads, a mere push or a shove away from certain death.

An endless procession of villagers cycle along the side of the road, aware of the vehicle coming up behind them only by the incessant honking of horns - quite possibly the biggest necessity in a vehicle in Cambodia, and indeed in Thailand and Vietnam also.

Some vehicles are so poorly lit that what appears to be a motorbike coming towards you, can often turn out to be a Khmer tractor hauling a wider load than you're prepared for.

The median strip is a guide more than a rule and drivers, well my driver at least, seemed to prefer to spend as much time on the wrong side of the road as possible.

Children ride on top of loads strapped to the back of utes that would be considered outrageous hazards in New Zealand.

Some passengers, who are left with no choice as the back of the ute is overloaded, as is the roof, are forced to ride nonchalantly on the bonnet of the car hurtling down the motorway.

Marauding cows cross the road at will.

One unlucky milky-white bovine had the misfortune of crossing the road ahead of an oncoming ute. The vehicle struck the cow so hard it completed a 180 before landing on its back. It got up and limped off nursing a presumably smashed leg.

In the cities, there are no such things as pedestrian crossings. You soon learn to walk out and leave it to the drivers to avoid hitting you - this experience becomes even more nerve-wracking when you notice some of the scooter drivers are texting as they hurtle towards you.

Taking a moto - a scooter taxi - is a lesson in daring driving. Every now and then a driver offers you a helmet but more often than not you're forced to risk your marbles every time you set foot, or bum, on the back of one.

It's obvious the fairly recent law making it compulsory to wear helmets has not quite worked.

Drivers merge when and how they feel like it and it's a wonder you don't see constant crashes. Perhaps it's fortunate scooters, and not SUVs, are the most popular vehicle of choice. Hummers are de rigueur among the newly rich, however.

The only times the roads are quiet are when convoys of VIP vehicles are on the move and their security staff shut the roads down to the public.

You certainly learn to appreciate roads rules for what they are - lifesavers.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Thaksin's arrival in Cambodia renews talk about his ambitions

Known as Cambodia's "Wild West" with its corrupt immigration officials, visa scams, crooked cops, prostitutes, illegal logging and gambling, Koh Kong could gain new notoriety if Thaksin Shinawatra's ambitious development plans go ahead.

His arrival to a hero's welcome in Phnom Penh, where he yesterday praised "generous laws" regarding foreign ownership during an address to Cambodian businessmen and economists, was seen by many as a big step toward making all-out inroads into the country. With Thaksin reportedly already granted a large-scale investment licence in the area lasting 99 years, Koh Kong could soon become a big thorn in Thailand's side.

Would Koh Kong become a virtual government in exile or will it become "Thaksin's Singapore"? Thai intelligence is paying serious attention to all such rumours. Though a source close to Thaksin denies that the fugitive has any plans concerning Koh Kong, the warm hospitality displayed by his Cambodian hosts and their hostility toward the Thai government suggests that the wild frontier would always be kept open for him.

Apart from having Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as his best friend, Thaksin has another good connection in Koh Kong - Pat Supapa, who is chairman of the Koh Kong International Resort Club and one of the richest business people in Cambodia having won several lucrative state concessions. He was one of the high-profile citizens who welcomed Thaksin.

It is these solid political and business friendships that have lent new weight to rumours that Thaksin was in Koh Kong while hardline red-shirted protesters were running riot in Bangkok in April.

Thaksin's government played a large role in the construction of a road between Koh Kong and Phnom Penh, and while in power he oversaw a booming border trade, with Thai goods reaching the Koh Kong port - outstripping land transport in great volumes.

If Thaksin really wants to build a presence in Koh Kong, he could be provocatively close to Thailand. With enough cash, a 2,000-square metre plot - earmarked to be an industrial estate that only about two kilometres from an immigration checkpoint - can be turned into anything with the blink of an eye.

Yet the source close to Thaksin insists the former prime minister has decided to put his plans to invest in Koh Kong in the deep freeze because the diplomatic row between the two countries has convinced him that this was not the right time to invest.

However, the source did admit that he had not spoken to Thaksin since he arrived in Phnom Penh, adding that the ex-PM had proposed the idea of building an entertainment-casino complex in Koh Kong to his friends in the Mideast but they had shown no interest.

"It is quite confirmed that he [Thaksin] has frozen the idea," the source said.

The town of Koh Kong once was part of Trat province under Siam in the 18th century. King Mongkut (Rama IV) named this eastern outpost "Prachanta Khiri Khet", which rhymes with Prachuap Khiri Khan in the Thai South. Coincidentally, the two cities share the same latitude. Koh Kong was later a French colony in 1934.

With the opening of the Thai-Cambodian bridge across the river and building of several casinos near the border, Koh Kong province has become better known among tourists.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Thaksin arrives in Cambodia

Ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra landed in Phnom Penh on Tuesday morning to start a job as economic adviser to the Cambodian government. A Thai government spokesman said the government will request the fugitive politician's extradition when the Foreign Ministry has confirmed his arrival there. (AFP Photo)

Fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra arrived in Cambodia on Tuesday morning to carry out his new role as economic adviser to the government, the Cambodian government said.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan told reporters in the morning that Thaksin was in Cambodia.

"Thaksin arrived in Cambodia today at 9.45am," he said. "It is a great honour for Cambodia. We hope Cambodia as a whole will greet him warmly."

Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, exited a small private airplane at Phnom Penh military air base and was then escorted into the capital by a convoy of cars under tight security.

Cambodia announced Thaksin's appointment last week, sparking a dispute that has led Thailand and Cambodia to recall their respective ambassadors and has deepened tensions after a series of deadly border clashes in the past year.

Thailand has also said it could seal the frontier if Thaksin is not extradited, but Cambodian ministry of foreign affairs spokesman Kuoy Kong said his country was "not concerned about these issues".

"We will not extradite him (Thaksin). We already clarified this case because he is a political victim,'' Kuoy Kong said on Tuesday.

Thaksin is living in foreign locations including Dubai to avoid a two-year jail term for conflict of interest while prime minister handed down by the Supreme Court in September 2008. He sksipped bail before the veredict was announced.

Thaksin Shinawatra (C) walks to a car at the Phnom Penh military air base on Tuesday morning. He landed in the Cambodian capital to carry out his new role as economics adviser to the government. (AFP Photo)

He justified his trip to Cambodia -- whose prime minister Hun Sen is a close friend and political ally -- in an open letter published on his website late Monday.

"I am not helping Cambodia to compete with Thailand. I will never do things to hurt my country no matter how badly I disagree with the government," he said.

Thaksin, the former owner of Manchester City football club, was due to give a a speech to hundreds of Cambodian economics experts in the capital on Thursday. He has not said how long he will be in Phnom Penh.

Thaksin won two elections and remains a massively influential figure in Thai politics, stirring up mass protests by so-called "Red Shirt" supporters against the current government.

His presence on Thailand's doorstep is the closest he has come since he last fled the country in August 2008.

Thai government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said in the morning that the government was waiting for a confirmation from the Foreign Ministry whether Thaksin has really set foot in Cambodia as reported by news agencies.

"When the Foreign Ministry has confirmed the fact, the government would assign the Office of the Attorney-General to seek his extradition," Mr Panithan said.

Former Thai PM lands in Cambodia

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cambodia's rice revolution

Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN <
Phou Phuy, head of Baitong Co, says Cambodia can benefit from the recent offering by the European Union of duty-free status for the country’s rice exports.

Cambodia will be able to export rice at volumes comparable to neighbouring countries in the near future.

Baitong Co has just invested millions of dollars in post-harvesting machinery for rice-processing at your Battambang plant. What is your business strategy?
Currently, Cambodia can export only 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes of rice to Europe because it has no post-harvesting technology to process rice to an international standard, so the rest of the husked rice has been sold to Vietnam and Thailand.

We are building this factory in order to enable Cambodia to export more rice to overseas markets.

The latest post-harvesting technologies are from Japan. This will process quality rice for export.... Without it that would be no way to export quality rice.

The mill cost US$7.8 million including the cost of 16 hectares of land for the site.

Construction began in August 2008, and up to now a rice store and drying machine are in use.

The remaining processing machine, polishing machine and packaging machine will arrive in mid-November and will take a fortnight to install.

When will all the machines be up and running, and what kind of capacity will they offer?
Operations will begin in January next year, and therefore the exports of good quality rice to overseas market will begin at the same month.

The post-harvesting technologies will be capable of producing 720 tonnes of processed rice per day (running 24 hours a day), or 259,200 tonnes per year, for export.

This amount is still low because Cambodia has about 2 million tonnes of husked rice or more than 1 million tonnes of milled rice in surplus for export.

What challenges remain in developing the rice industry for export to markets overseas?
Now there is no concern over the market, but the concern is that there is no capital to buy husked rice from farmers to process – the market is waiting for us.

With this post-harvesting machinery we also now have no concern over the quality of our rice in terms of meeting the necessary standard of overseas markets. It’s about quantity due to limited capital resources.

The limited capital to buy in husked rice from farmers is a concern for us and it is an obstacle to increasing stocks to process for export.

Currently, according to data from our 700 rice millers, 300,000 tonnes of husked rice worth $75 million has been purchased from farmers for stock with their own capital and loans from the Rural Development Bank (RDB).

This year, due to a good market, millers may increase purchases of husked rice for stock up to half a million tonnes because the RDB has offered more loans.

Financing from banks is very important for collecting rice from farmers.

When millers have more capital to buy husked rice … more will be processed in Cambodia for export, without selling out to Vietnam and Thailand.
In fact we do not want to sell husked rice, but due to limited capital we have to sell it all.

Another challenge for rice-market development is that some farmers use seeds that are not popular on overseas markets, so now we are educating farmers to change to types that are appropriate for European markets [in particular] which gain high prices, and produce high yields … up to 5 tonnes per hectare, compared to 2.5 tonnes to 3 tonnes with the current seeds.

You mention capital problems. To what extent have the RDB and private banks helped the sector this year?
With RDB, it has a special arrangement with the government so that interest rates are just 5 percent per annum.

This year, RDB has set aside $18 million to lend to rice millers, an increase of 38 percent on last year.

But thus far the [Rice Millers] association hasn’t accessed it, while interest rates at commercial banks are between 10 and 12 percent per year.

This is an acceptable rate, but in terms of developing Cambodian rice-milling, it would be more helpful if banks lend at 7 percent per year.

With limited capital, how concerned are you that Cambodian millers cannot compete with their counterparts in Thailand and Vietnam, in terms of buying up rice from farmers following the harvest beginning this month?
We cannot compete with them in buying rice from farmers because [millers] buy wet husked rice … because they have drying machines, while Cambodian millers – about 99 percent – have no drying machines or other modern post-harvesting machines.

On the other hand, we do not have much capital to buy all the rice from farmers.

Transportation costs in Cambodia remain high. How can Cambodia compete with its neighbours in terms of shipping exports to Europe?

In terms of transportation, it’s true that costs here are higher than in those countries.

We do not have a railroad, and their transport companies offer cheap fees, so expenses are higher … but we have more favourable conditions since September when Cambodia was given duty-free status on rice exports to European countries.

Therefore, tax exemption on rice will enable Cambodia to compete with Vietnam and Thailand on rice exports to EU countries.

In Europe, a tonne of good quality rice is about $940, and standard quality around $600.

How else will Europe’s decision to eliminate tariffs on Cambodian rice affect the domestic industry?

The tax exemption is a golden opportunity for Cambodia.

Cambodia is thus far not well known for exporting rice, so we will have difficulties, as we have not really exported rice before.

Therefore we do have overseas market partners. They do not know us, but they know Thailand and Vietnam.

However, I am worried that tax exemption will be a chance for neighbouring investors to do business in Cambodia in order to export rice from Cambodia to other countries duty-free.

It’s good for Cambodia if they’re serious, but we are concerned that they would just start companies to get a licence to export rice … then export just a little Cambodian rice and then bring in foreign rice … to use the Cambodian name to export to Europe so as to benefit from tax exemption.
If this were to happen it would kill local rice exporters.

Given the situation now, how do you see the future of the domestic rice industry?
Cambodia will be able to export rice at volumes comparable to neighbouring countries in the near future.

Cambodian rice will become well-known on international markets next year when our mill is in operation.

Companies from Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have visited Cambodia and told me that they need rice from Cambodia.

So far, contracts have not been signed, but when our machinery is in operation, we will invite them to visit our factories, and contracts will be agreed.