Travelling in South East Asia – The Kingdom of Cambodia & The Socialist Republic of Vietnam


There are plenty of blog posts about Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat temple complex and its undoubted appeal as a tourist destination – this is not one of those posts. This post is a reasonably definitive first hand and unbiased guide to travelling to Phnom Penh in The Kingdom of Cambodia, travelling the NH1 Highway to Bavet via the Mekong Ferry and then crossing into The Socialist Republic of Vietnam at the Bavet-Mocbai border gates which are approximately 50kms from the outskirts of Ho-Chi Minh City – HCMC (formerly Saigon).

Angkor Wat Temple Complex, Siem Reap
(Photo Credit: Unknown)

NH1 Highway – Phnom Penh, Bavet-MocBai, Ho Chi Minh City
(Photo Credit: Google Maps Screen Shot)

Finding What You Want In This Blog Post 

I do not usually provide a table of contents in a blog post but as this is mostly a utilitarian post which people will want specific information from so I have detailed the sections below, so you can jump straight to the bit that you are interested in (navigation is manual). However, the post does follow a structure and can be read top to bottom from a “getting there”, “while in-country” and “getting out of there” context.

Table of Contents

  1. The Kingdom of Cambodia (in Khmer – Kampuchea)
    1. Political Stability & Economy
    2. Rising from a Low Base
    3. Attitude to Tourism 
  2. Phnom Penh in Brief
    1. The Airport 
    2. The Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers
    3. Gambling & Casinos
  3. The Bavet Region
    1. The Moc-Bai Border Gates
    2. Duty Free Shopping
    3. Casinos & Gambling 
  4. Ho Chi Minh City in Brief
    1. The Airport 
  5. Getting There – Routes from Western Europe & the USA
  6. Airport Tax & VISA Rules & Requirements
    1. Airport Tax (Passenger Service Charges) 
    2. The list of entry points to obtain a Visa

    3. Visa Fees 
    4. Tourist & Business Visas 
    5. Visa Exemption 
    6. Visa Extension 
    7. International Border Crossings & Overland Routes
  7. What you Need to Know to Make the Best of your Visit
    1. The Locals
      1. Ethnic Groups in Cambodia
    2. Customer Service 
    3. A Dollarized Economy
    4. Counterfeit Dollars 
    5. The Weather 
    6. Accommodation & Hotels 
    7. Public Transport 
    8. Driving “In Country”
    9. The Tuk Tuk Phenomenon 
    10. Medical Facilities & Prescription Medicines 
    11. Shopping & Counterfeit Goods
    12. Drinking water 
    13. Eating Out 
    14. Street Food 
      1. Iced Coffee with Milk
      2. Chive Cakes
      3. Beek Skewers
      4. Fried Noodles
      5. Noodle Soup
      6. “Pop-Up” Restaurants 
    15. The Smelliest Fruit in the World – Durian
    16. Socialising & Night Life 
  8. Other Important Stuff 
    1. Law Enforcement
    2. Urban De-Militarisation 
    3. Tourists Shooting Guns
    4. Visit the Mekong Delta 
    5. Random Pictures 
1. The Kingdom of Cambodia 
Cambodia or in Khmer – Kampuchea – officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, is located in the southern portion of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. With a total landmass of 181,035 square kilometres (69,898 sq mi), it is bordered by Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Vietnam to the east, and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest.
With a population of over 14.8 million, Cambodia is the 68th most populous country in the world. The official religion is Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced by around 95% of the Cambodian population. The country minority groups include Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams and 30 various hill tribes.

Paying for Prayer – A Daily Ritual (Phnom Penh – off Monivong Boulevard)
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
The capital and largest city is Phnom Penh; the political, economic, and cultural center of Cambodia. The kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with Norodom Sihamoni, a monarch chosen by the Royal Throne Council, as head of state. The head of government is Hun Sen, who is currently the longest serving leader in South East Asia and has ruled Cambodia for over 25 years.
1.1 Political Stability
Cambodia has had the same ruling party and leader for 22 years following the first election in 1993. The political environment has been more stable since 1998 following the establishment of a second coalition government. S&P and Moody’s have assigned ratings of B (Stable Outlook) and B2 (Stable Outlook), respectively, to Cambodia. 
Hun Sen is the 34th and current Prime Minister of Cambodia, President of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and Member of Parliament (MP) for Kandal. He has served as Cambodia’s premier for more than 25 years, making him the longest serving head of government of Cambodia and one of the longest serving leaders in the world. 
From 1979 to 1986 and again from 1987 to 1990, Hun Sen served as Cambodia’s foreign minister. His full honorary title is Samdech Akeak Moha Sena Padey Decho Hun Sen (“Lord Prime Minister, Supreme Military Commander Hun Sen”). Born Hun Bunal, he changed his name to Hun Sen in 1972 two years after joining the Khmer Rouge.
Hun Sen is the 34th and current Prime Minister of Cambodia
(Photo Credit: Unknown)

The platform on which the prime minister has built his tenure, say his supporters, is his stewardship of the economy, which is run on markedly free market lines compared to some others in the region. 
1.2 Rising from a Low Base 
According to the IMF, Cambodia is expected to enjoy rapid economic growth over the next five years, driven by the current low base, the government’s healthy balance sheet and the government’s intention to rely more heavily on higher value-adding tourism services to drive economic growth. 
The Vietnam War, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime, had a devastating impact on the Cambodian economy. Despite the strong economic growth after the end of Khmer Rouge in 1978, Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in Asia, with GDP per capita low at US$814 in 2010.
1.3 Attitude to Tourism 
The Cambodian government considers tourism as one of the priority sectors, after rice exportation, contributing to national socio-economic development. The Cambodian government aims to increase international tourist arrival from 2.5 million in 2010 to 4.5 million in 2015 and 7 million in 2020 via the implementation of the following initiatives.

Currently, majority of the visitor arrival enters the country via land and water transport. Despite direct flight from Phnom Penh to most key Asian cities, including Bangkok, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpar, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Shanghai, Taipei, Vientiane and Incheon, half of the visitor arrival is still from land and water transport.

With the improvement in air connectivity and implementation of Visa exemption policy, tourist arrival from planes is expected to increase, which would drive the overall tourist arrival of the country.

2. Phnom Penh in Brief

Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city of Cambodia. Located on the banks of the Mekong River, Phnom Penh has been the national capital since the French colonized Cambodia in the 1860’s, and has grown to become the nation’s centre of economic and industrial activity, as well as the centre of security, politics, economics, cultural heritage, and diplomacy.

Central Market District, Phnom Penh
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

Once known as the “Pearl of Asia”, it was considered one of the most beautiful French-built cities in Indochina. Phnom Penh, along with Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, are significant global and domestic tourist destinations for Cambodia.

The Phnom Penh metropolitan area is home to more than two million of Cambodia’s population of over fourteen million. The city is the wealthiest and most populous city in Cambodia and is home to the country’s political hub.

2.1 The Airport – Phnom Penh International Airport (IATA: PNH, ICAO: VDPP) 

The airport covers a land area of circa 400 hectares. It is located 10 kilometres (5.4 NM) west of Phnom Penh. There are two terminal buildings an international terminal and one for domestic operations. The international terminal has 5 air bridges built in 2003. The airport’s design capacity is 2 million persons per year.

Phnom Penh International Airport
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

2.2 The Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers

Phnom Penh is situated at the confluence of the Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers.

View of the Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac River Confluence in Phnom Penh 
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

2.3 Gambling & Casino’s

Phnom Penh hosts NagaWorld, Phnom Penh’s only licensed casino.

Vietnamese gamblers make up 38.5 percent of the players, with Chinese citizens accounting for 25.7 percent and Malaysian visitors 20.8 percent.

In Cambodia’s border casinos in towns such as Bavet and Poipet, the majority of the players are Thais and Vietnamese.

Exterior NagaWorld Hotel & Casino, Phnom Penh  
At Night (Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

NagaWorld Hotel & Casino, Phnom Penh
(Photo Credit: Unknown)

Inside NagaWorld Hotel & Casino, Phnom Penh – PHOTOS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

3. The Bavet Region
Bavet is an international border crossing between the Kingdom of Cambodia and Socialist Republic of Vietnam and is located in Svay Rieng province. Its counterpart across the border is Moc Bai, Vietnam. 
Bavet belongs to one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia. The main economic resource of Bavet is its position on NH1 (National Highway 1), connecting Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. National Highway 1 or National Road No.1 (10001) is one of the national highways in Cambodia and extends 167.10 km (103.83 mi) connecting the capital of Phnom Penh with Bavet on the border with Vietnam. 
Cambodia-Vietnam Border at Bavet & Proximity to Ho Chi Minh City
(Photo Credit: Google Maps Screen Shot)
In 1981, Cambodia opened a newly repaired section of National Highway 1 to the Vietnamese border, the road having suffered damage during the war years. In Phnom Penh the road converges with the National Highway 2 near Monivong Bridge. 
3.1 The Moc-Bai Border Gates
The Moc-Bai Border Gates is the entry point to Vietnam and passport control is in operation. 
View of the Moc-Bai Border Gates from the Cambodian Side 
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
The Moc-Bai Border Gates 
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
3.2 Duty Free Shopping
There is a specially designated Duty Free Zone between the Bavet and Moc Bai border posts. The area is being developed as a mass market duty free, leisure and shopping hub.
The Duty Free Zone between Cambodia & Vietnam Border Crossings 
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
3.3 Casinos & Gambling 
The location also contains multiple casino and gaming establishments. The location removes the need for Cambodians nationals, Vietnamese nationals or tourists to have their passports stamped if they wish to visit the casinos. 
Casino’s on the NH1 at Bavet, Cambodia
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
4. Ho Chi Minh City – In Brief
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly named Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam. It was once known as Prey Nokor, an important Khmer sea port prior to annexation by the Vietnamese in the 17th century. Under the name Saigon, it was the capital of the French colony of Cochin-china and later of the independent Republic of South Vietnam from 1955–75.

South Vietnam, as an anti-communist republic, fought against the communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, with aid from the United States of America and countries including Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.

Saigon fell when it was captured by the communists on 30 April 1975. Vietnam was then turned into a communist state with the South overtaken. On 2 July 1976, Saigon merged with the surrounding Gia Định Province and was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after Hồ Chí Minh although the name Sài Gòn is still commonly used.

The city center is situated on the banks of the Saigon River, 60 kilometers (37 mi) from the South China Sea and 1,760 kilometers (1,090 mi) south of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. The metropolitan area, which consists of the Ho Chi Minh City metropolitan area, Thủ Dầu Một, Dĩ An, Biên Hòa and surrounding towns, is populated by more than 9,000,000 people, making it the most populous metropolitan area in Vietnam and the countries of the former French Indochina.

The Greater Ho Chi Minh City Metropolitan Area, a metropolitan area covering most parts of Đông Nam Baộ plus Tiền Giang and Long An provinces has an area of 30,000 square kilometers and a population of over 20 million people.

According to the Mercer Human Resource Consulting, Economist Intelligence Unit and ECA International, Ho Chi Minh City is ranked 132 on the list of world’s most expensive cities for expatriate employees.

4.1 Ho Chi Minh City Airport (SGN) 

Tan Son Nhat International Airport (IATA: SGN, ICAO: VVTS), is the largest airport in Vietnam. It is located 4 mi (6 km) north of the center (District 1) of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The airport operates from two terminal buildings – Domestic Terminal 1 and International Terminal 2. The new international terminal opened in September 2007 with the capacity of 8 to 10 million passengers per year, giving the airport a total capacity of 15-17 million passengers per annum.

Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Vietnam 
(Photo Credit:
5. Getting There – Routes from Western Europe & the USA
If you are not an experienced traveller or dislike long haul flights then there are multiple options of getting to this destination from Europe or the USA – with stop-overs. Prices vary widely based on the usual criteria – travel class, booking in advance, airline preference and so on. Best travel duration is about 18 to 24 hours but can be up to 40/50 hours depending on your selection. Some examples:

Skyscanner Flight Options, Prices & Stopovers
(Photo Credit:

6. Airport Tax & VISA Rules & Requirements
(Visa Information Credit to

For most visitors to the Kingdom, visa are obtainable upon arrival at both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap International Airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. At the land crossing from Thailand, visas are available at Poipet Banteay Meanchey and Cham Yeam (Koh Kong province).

Visitors who enter from Vietnam through Bavet (VN: Moc Bai) or Ka-Om Samnor (VN: Chao Doc) will need to have already obtained their visas prior to their arrival through a Cambodian Embassy or Consulate overseas.

Tourists also can obtain visa through the online E-Visa. Some nationalities are required to get a visa in advance at the Royal Embassy of Kingdom of Cambodia in their country – these countries are Afghanistan, Algeria, Arab Saudi, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Nigeria.

A passport and visa are required. Tourists and business travellers may purchase a Cambodian visa valid for one month at the airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and borders. Both require a passport valid for at least six (6) months from the expiry date and a recent passport-sized photo.

A departure tax is charged on all domestic and international flights. All charges that apply are listed below for the various scenarios:

6.1 Airport Tax (Passenger Service Charges) 

  • For International Travel Foreigner: Adult US$25 Under 12 years old US$13 Under 2 years old FREE 
  • Cambodian: Adult US$18 Under 12 years old US$10 Under 2 years old FREE 
  • For Domestic Travel Foreigner: Adult US$6 Cambodian: Adult US$5 

6.2 The list of entry points to obtain a Visa

Airports: Phnom Penh International Airport & Siem Reap International Airport

Cambodia-Vietnam border: Bavet International Check Point (Svay Rieng Province); Kha Orm Sam Nor International Check Point (Kandal Province); Koh Rohka International Check Point (Prey Veng Province); Banteay Chakrey International Check Point (Preyveng Province); Tropeang Sre International Check Point (Kratie Province); Prek Chak International Check Point (Kampot Province); Phnom Den International Check Point (Takeo Province); Oyadav International Check Point (Rattankiri Province); Tropieng Phlong International Check Point (Kampong Cham Province);

Cambodia-Thailand border: Cham Yeam International Check Point (Koh Kong Province); Poi Pet International Check Point (Banteay Meanchey Province); Osmach International Check Point (Odor Meanchey Province); Sihanoukville International Check Point (Sihanoukville Province); Choam Sanguam International Check Point (Banteay Meanchey Province); Prum International Check Point (Pailin Province); Doung International Check Point (Battambang Province); Preah Vihear International Check Point (Preah Vihear Province);

Cambodia-Lao border: Dong Krolar International Check Point (Steung Treng Province); Tropieng Kreal International Check Point (Stung Treng Province)

It is required for the visa applicants to submit passport, application forms, a recent passport-style colour photograph, and such other documents as determined by the status of stay.

6.3 Visa Fees

  • Single entry visa fee for tourist (T) (30 days): US$ 30 
  • Single entry visa fee for business (E) (30 days): US$ 35 

6.4 Tourist & Business Visas 

Visitors from countries not under Visa Exemption Agreements must apply for a Tourists (T) or Business (E) visa valid for one month at the point of entry. Visa K can be issued to a Cambodian national entering the Kingdom on a foreign passport. (The applicant has to provide well-documented evidence, such as proof that one’s parents were Cambodian).

6.5 Visa Exemption

The nationals of the Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia do not need a tourist visa and may stay in Cambodia for 21 and 30 days respectively.

6.6 Visa Extension 

The tourist (T) and business (E) visas can be extended at the Immigration Department, National Police. The Diplomatic (A), Official (B) and Courtesy (C) visas can be extended at the Consular Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A tourist visa can be extended only once for up to one month (single entry). A business visa can be extended for: One month (Single entry).

Three months (Single entry) Six months (Multiple entry) One year (Multiple entry) Overstayers will be fined US$ 5 per day.

6.7 International Border Crossings & Overland Routes
Border Crossings & Overland Routes
(Photo Credit: Google)

7. What you Need to Know to Make the Best of your Visit
7.1 The Locals 
Almost universally friendly – I have always had positive experiences with the people of Cambodia. It is often foreigners in Cambodia that are the problematic ones. 
7.1.1 Ethnic Groups in Cambodia
  • Cham – Descendants of Cham refugees who fled to Cambodia after the fall of Champa. 222,808 (2012 est.) 
  • Chinese – Descendants of Chinese settlers in Cambodia. 695,852 (2012 est.) 
  • Cambodian Hokkien Khmer Khmer Kandal – “Central Khmers” Ethnic Khmers indigenous to Cambodia proper. 
  • Khmer Krom – “Lowland Khmers” Ethnic Khmers indigenous to Southeastern Cambodia and the adjoining Mekong Delta region of Southern Vietnam. The provinces of South Vietnam all bear ancient Khmer names as they were once part of the Khmer Empire, until the 19th century when the French made Cambodia a protectorate. 
  • Khmer Surin – “Surin Khmers” Ethnic Khmer indigenous to Northwestern Cambodia and adjacent areas in Surin, Buriram and Sisaket provinces in Northeast Thailand, in the region known as Isan. These provinces were formerly part of the Khmer Empire but were annexed by Thailand in the 18th century. 
  • Khmer Loeu – “Highland Khmers” Umbrella term used to designate all hilltribes in Cambodia, irrespective of their language family. 
  • Mon–Khmer speakers Kachok Krung – There are three distinct dialects of Krung. All are mutually intelligible. 
  • Krung Brao Kavet Kraol – 2,000 (est.) Mel- 3,100 (est.) 
  • Kuy – A small group of people mostly located in the highlands of Cambodia. 
  • Phnong Tampuan – Ethnic group located in the Northeastern province of Ratanakiri. 
  • Stieng – Often confused with ethnic Degar (Montagnard) Ra’ong Mnong – Ethnic group located on the eastern province of Mondulkiri. 
  • Samre Chong Sa’och Somray Suoy Austronesian speakers Jarai – Mostly located in Vietnam, the Jarai extend into Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province. 
  • Rhade – The majority of Rhade, or Ê Đê, are located in Vietnam. They share close cultural ties with the Jarai and other tribes. 
  • Tai Thai – 43,000 (est.) Lao – Living mainly in the Ratanakiri Province. 
  • Shan Kula Vietnamese – Live mostly in Phnom Penh where they form a considerable minority and parts of southeastern Cambodia next to the Vietnamese border. 
  • Hmong–Mien – The Miao and Hmong are hill tribes that live in urban and rural areas. 
  • Miao Hmong Yao Tibeto-Burman Burmese – 4,700 (est.) 
  • Japanese – mainly first generation entrepreneurs and investors in Phnom Penh 
  • Koreans – mainly first generation entrepreneurs and investors in Phnom Penh
7.2 Customer Service
Friendly and many in the hospitality industry speak intelligible English. 
7.3 A Dollarized Economy
The official currency is the Cambodian Riel – however most payments are made in US dollars and change will be in US dollars except where change is coinage in which case you will normally receive Riel. 
7.4 Counterfeit Dollars 
Rampant US dollar counterfeiting plagues South East Asia. If your dollar bill is torn in any way, if the serial number is worn or if the note is defaced in any way then it will not be accepted. 
It is not unusual for you to present a USD100 dollar bill for payment for a meal and then have the waiter ask you to take note of the serial number before they take it away and check its authenticity. When they return and decline to accept it because of concerns they have about the note then check the serial number and make sure that it has not been switched. You will then be asked for alternative payment. 
Similarly the Bureaux de Change in country and also in Thailand will only accept pristine notes for conversion to your local currency when you are returning home.  
7.5 The Weather 
(expert commentary courtesy of

Cambodia is blessed with one of Asia’s simpler weather systems and despite having two distinct weather seasons you can travel in Cambodia all-year-round. In general, the entire country is subject to the same weather patterns, mainly due to the relatively uniform altitude and latitude throughout Cambodia.

There are two distinct seasons – dry (October to late April) and wet (May to late September). Within each season there are variations in temperature, with the final few dry months leading up to the wet season (March and April) and the early months of the wet season (May and June) usually being the hottest of the year with temperatures in excess of 35°C at times.

Humidity is at its height during March and April whilst the coolest months of the year tend to between October and December, however this is cool for Cambodia but far from chilly (avg temperatures 24°C – 26°C).

7.5.1 The Dry Season: October – April / Early May

Cambodia’s dry season lasts from October to April, when the dry north-east monsoon arrives, characterised by hot wind blowing across the entire country. Whilst November to January are quite cool (high 20°C’s) by April the weather is scorching making early morning and late afternoon Angkor Temple tours, with a few hours by the hotel pool at lunchtime, the preference for many.

Thanks to the hot weather this is unsurprisingly the season when Cambodia’s tourist numbers peak. In more remote parts, the roads are at their best and journey times are shorter because of this. Kep and Sihanoukville on the south coast are popular during this season as they bask in the brilliant sunshine and sea conditions are very favourable.

7.5.2 The Wet Season: Early / Mid May – October

Cambodia’s wet season comes courtesy of the southwest monsoon and lasts from May to October, bringing with it almost 75% of Cambodia’s annual rainfall. Across Cambodia, throughout much of the rainy season, daytime temperatures average between 25°C and 27°C. The early months of the wet season (May – July) remain very hot with infrequent rainfall usually in the form of short downpours. In the latter months (late July – September) the rains tend becomes more constant and is heavy at times, especially in coastal and rural regions.

Monsoon Downpour, Thunder & Lightning – Plantation Hotel, Phnom Penh 
(Video Credit: Graham Penrose)

Travel in the more remote corners of the country is almost impossible due to the state of the roads and journeys into the north east are inadvisable during the peak wet season because of this. There is also very limited access to Bamboo Island (near Kep) due to high seas. On the upside, travelling in monsoonal Cambodia does have its advantages. The dust is gone and the lush greenery of the countryside returns. Angkor Wat in particular is stunning in the wet season, with moats brimming with water and a severe drop in visitor numbers.

7.6 Accommodation & Hotels 

Plenty of choice catering for all budgets and tastes – in Phnom Penh:

Accommodation Options & Prices
(Photo Credit:

7.7 Public Transport 

There are no state run public transport services. 

Public “Transport”
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

Outside of Urban Centres – Highway Standards
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

7.8 Driving “In Country”

Simple one this – “don’t do it” – driving is not for the faint hearted. Yielding “right of way” translated into local road etiquette means wading into a sea of oncoming mopeds and hoping they stop. Sometimes they do – sometimes they don’t. If you are a meek sort of person you will be trying to make a right turn for several hours if you do not take the plunge and stick your vehicles nose out.

When and if you do try this it is a roll of the dice whether you will end up in a collision. The only way to lessen the hassle here is to drive a vehicle with government plates – not easily sourced.

“Rush hour” starts at 05.00 hours and lasts until 22.00 hours. Where China has bicycles Cambodia has mopeds.


Typical Street Scene – Traffic (Mopeds)
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

On rural roads – where I have been rear ended several times the excuses and reasoning for the collision are generally hilarious if they were not so worrying. On Highway 1 close to the Mekong ferry we slowed our Lexus 4×4 to allow cattle who were blocking the road to be moved out of the way.

While stationery we were rear ended by a Vietnamese registered coach with 90 people on board. The perfectly acceptable explanation that was given by the driver of the bus was that it was not his fault as the brakes on the bus did not work and therefore he could not stop. Seems fair.  


Collision with Vietnamese “Coach” – NH1 Highway
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

The mopeds also act as the work horses for goods haulage and can be seen all over the country clearly heavily overloaded and quite dangerous. The drivers appear to have an uncanny sense of balance on non-windy days.

Heavily Overloaded Vehicles are Commonplace (Mopeds)
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

The moped also acts as a form of mass family transport.

“People Carriers” – Cambodian Version
(Photo Credit: Google Images)

Mini-vans are also frequently seen loaded beyond safe capacity. Stay well clear and never tailgate – loads regularly dislodge. Give these guys a wide berth.

Heavily Overloaded Vehicles are Commonplace (Mini Vans)
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

7.9 The Tuk-Tuk Phenomenon

The most popular form of “taxi”. They come in all shapes and sizes but safety is a concern. No collision protection and no seat belts in most. Cheap and cheerful – always negotiate – there are no meters and no rate cards – USD3 will get you from one end of Phnom Penh to the other during the day.

Tuk-Tuk Types
(Photo Credit: Google Images)

7.10 Medical Facilities & Prescription Medicines 

There are local clinics and hospitals – many medications requiring prescriptions in the West are OTC in Cambodia – but the street stalls selling them trade counterfeit medication with all the attendant risks. Stick to the pharmacies in the large shopping malls.

7.11 Shopping & Counterfeit Goods

Buyer beware – brands are counterfeit in 90% of the cases unless buying at one of the international brands local stores of which there are few.

Street traders will consistently pitch – all their stuff with few exceptions is knock-off. Don’t be tempted.

Also your “change” will more than likely be in counterfeit dollars – adding to the hassle later when you try to use them.

Street Vendors at the Mekong Ferry Terminal
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

7.12 Drinking Water

Do not drink the tap water – ice cubes in your drink may be ok – but why take a chance.

7.13 Eating Out 

The most important part of every meal is rice. In fact, Cambodians greet each other by saying “Nyam bai howie nov?” (“Have you eaten rice yet?”)

Plenty of choice for local dishes – slippery slope after that – plenty of fast food outlets serving chicken and KFC’s on every corner but Cambodian concepts of acceptable poultry bear no resemblance to Western standards.

7.14 Street Food 
(Excerpts from and credit to for elements of this section)

Many visitors believe that the Kingdom’s roadside delicacies consist of little more more than deep-fried tarantulas and stir-fried crickets. Concerns about hygiene also keep some foreigners from indulging.

But the best street food isn’t about bugs–either the edible or intestinal kind–and it’s too good to miss. You just need to choose wisely. The safest street foods are those that are cooked in front of you and served hot, which kills off bacteria.

“Street food has two advantages over food cooked in restaurants: transparency and immediacy. When you eat on the street nothing is hidden; you can judge whether or not the person handling your food, the surface on which it’s prepped and the plate on which it will be served is clean,” said food journalist Robyn Eckhardt, who has written extensively about street food in Asia and Turkey for international publications.

“And because the time from stall to table is just seconds, you can be confident that your food hasn’t languished long enough to collect the odd bacteria.” Here are some of the safest and tastiest dishes that you’ll find on the streets of Cambodia. Although they are usually sold at street-side stands and by roving vendors, you’ll also find them at the food area at Central Market, which has grown-up-sized seats and perhaps slightly higher hygienic standards.

7.14.1 Iced coffee with milk: Perhaps the easiest introduction to street food is its beverages. The thoroughfares of Phnom Penh are lined with coffee shops selling kar-fe toek doh koh toek gok, or iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. If you’re like me, knowing that the beans are roasted in lard makes the sweet, strong coffee taste that much better. Some choose to have it without the condensed milk, but they underestimate the mental clarity aroused by the tingling of dental cavities caused by the drink’s unabashed treacliness.

7.14.2 Chive cakes: Fried in shallow pans by mobile street vendors, num kachay are small chive cakes, made with glutinous rice flour and served with a sweet, spicy fish sauce. You’ll find similar versions of this dish in Thailand, but the recipe is believed to have originated in China.

7.14.3 Beef skewers: A common afternoon or evening snack in Cambodia, sach ko chomkak are skewers of beef cooked over hot coals. They’re best enjoyed tucked into a crunchy baguette and accompanied by tart green papaya slaw and spicy red chili sauce. Cambodia street food fried noodles Not the most visually appealing, but fried noodles are some of the cheapest, most filling street food in Cambodia.

7.14.4 Fried noodles: Variations of fried noodles abound in Cambodia, but whether they’re made with short, thick rice noodles that resemble worms, soft yellow egg noodles or packaged deep-fried instant ramen noodles, mi char is one of the simplest and most satisfying afternoon snacks. While sellers have many different variations, beef and pork stir-fried with tender greens are the most common. For an added treat, ask for a fried egg on top.

7.14.5 Noodle soup: One of the most popular breakfasts in town, kuy teav is a noodle soup made from pork or beef bones and rice vermicelli and topped with fried shallots, green onions and bean sprouts. Fish balls and pork are usually added, although you’ll sometimes find rare-beef kuy teav as well. But don’t dare call it pho! Many Cambodians believe that the dish originated in Kampuchea Krom–the area of Southern Vietnam that was once part of the Khmer Empire–and that the famous Vietnamese soup came second. A delicious Phnom Penh speciality version of the soup, kuy teav Phnom Penh, featuring blood, liver, intestines and tongue, is not for the faint of heart (or squeamish expats).

7.14.6 “Pop-Up” Restaurants

These exist on the footpath / sidewalk and are common place. Street stalls line the streets.

Not for me but if it is to your liking – go for it – knock yourself out – you probably will. My Simple Rule – DO NOT EAT IT.

Street Food Samples
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
7.15 The Smelliest Fruit in the World – Durian

Worth a quick mention is durian whose name is derived from the Malay-Indonesian languages word for duri or “spike”, a reference to the numerous spike protuberances of the fruit. There are 30 recognised Durio species, at least nine of which produce edible fruit.

It is regarded by many people in southeast Asia as the “king of fruits”, the durian is distinctive for its large size, strong odour, and formidable thorn-covered husk.

No Guns : No Goats : No Smoking : No Durian : No Drinks : No Dogs
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

The fruit can grow as large as 30 centimetres (12 in) long and 15 centimetres (6 in) in diameter, and it typically weighs one to three kilograms (2 to 7 lb). Its shape ranges from oblong to round, the colour of its husk green to brown, and its flesh pale yellow to red, depending on the species.
It is common to see these signs in Hotels & public places which gives you and idea of how offensive the odour of this fruit is to many people.

7.16 Socialising & Night Life 

Surprisingly, the nightlife is good fun but PP is not bangkok – still it offers a selection of dance clubs, sports bars, neighbourhood pubs, karaoke, upscale clubs and more.

Bars and clubs are scattered across the town but as the city is fairly compact it’s never more than a five or ten minute ride between places, usually less. And there are several little clusters of bars and nightspots around town allowing you to hop easily from one to the next.

There is no centralized red light district in Phnom Penh, but the area around Street 130, Street 136 and Street 51 is where the majority of bar girls can be found, at any time of the day or night. Most of the ‘bars’ are little more than brothels with beer.

Pimps shuttling their workers to clients – these guys will shadow your Tuk-Tuk and try to “negotiate” a price while dodging traffic

                                                                       (Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

Popular spots if that is your thing are: Catch 22 B, Island Bar, Sharky Bar, Martini Pub, Matilda Bar, 69 Bar & Mr. Butterfly Bar.

Best nightclubs are: D.R Bar Night Club/Discotheque Dance club, open into the very late evening. DJs every night playing hip-hop, rap, funk, trance, house and R&B. Attracting a young local crowd as well as tourists and expatriate. Full bar with beer, spirits and cocktails.. #40, Street 214, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 7:30PM – 4:00AM Tel: 011-337327 and Heart of Darkness Bar.

8. Other Important Stuff

8.1 Law Enforcement
Do not get into trouble in Cambodia – the experience of spending a few days in custody will more than likely far outweigh what you may or may not have done.

Rural Police Station (Eastern Cambodia) & Law Enforcement Officers

                                                                       (Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

8.2 Urban De-Militarisation 

It is illegal to carry a firearm within 30kms of an urban area. 
8.3 Tourists Shooting Guns
It is illegal – blowing up cows with bazookas is not acceptable and it is illegal and you will be prosecuted. Tuk-tuk drivers will offer you this and the opportunity to lob some rounds from heavy guns across a rural field – do not take their offer.

You will also be offered “special” deals at tattoo parlours. Wait until you get home. Although personally I have had tattoos done in SEA but with people I knew and who were highly recommended.

8.4 Visit the Mekong Delta 

The Mekong

                                                                       (Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

8.5 Random Pictures

Jungle, Sunset on the Mekong & Temple Gates (they are everywhere)
                                                                       (Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

Finally here is a picture of a very cute and very small dog I met while hiking in Poipet. He was not impressed – clearly.

Man’s Best Friend – In a Bad Mood
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)

The Geopolitics of the Yangtze River: Developing the Interior


Editor’s Note: This is the first piece in a three-part series on the geopolitical implications of China’s move to transform the Yangtze River into a major internal economic corridor. Part one provides a broad overview of the geography and history of the Yangtze River region and its role in shaping Chinese politics and statecraft. Part two examines the strategic river city of Wuhan, and part three considers the political economy of Beijing’s push to develop the Yangtze River corridor. 

As the competitive advantage of low-cost, export-oriented manufacturing in China’s coastal industrial hubs wanes, Beijing will rely more heavily on the cities along the western and central stretches of the Yangtze River to drive the development of a supplemental industrial base throughout the country’s interior. Managing the migration of industrial activity from the coast to the interior — and the social, political and economic strains that migration will create — is a necessary precondition for the Communist Party’s long-term goal of rebalancing toward a more stable and sustainable growth model based on higher domestic consumption. In other words, it is critical to ensuring long-term regime security.
The concept of developing the interior is rooted in the dynastic struggle to establish and maintain China as a unified power against internal forces of regional competition and disintegration. Those forces arise from and reflect a simple fact: China is in many ways as geographically, culturally, ethnically and economically diverse as Europe. That regional diversity, which breeds inequality and in turn competition, makes unified China an inherently fragile entity. It must constantly balance between the interests of the center and those of regions with distinct and often contradictory economic and political interests.

Currently, the Party’s stated intent is eventually to achieve greater socio-economic parity between coastal and inland regions, as well as between cities and the rural hinterland. But Beijing also recognizes that underlying broad categories like “inland,” “central” and “western” China is a complex patchwork of regional differences and inequality. Mitigating these differences will require more varied and nuanced policies.
Against this backdrop, the central government has targeted the Yangtze River economic corridor — the urban industrial zones lining the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Shanghai — as a key area for investment, development and urbanization in the coming years. Ultimately, the Party hopes to transform the Yangtze’s main 2,800-kilometer-long (1,700-mile-long) navigable channel into a central superhighway for goods and people, better connecting China’s less developed interior provinces to the coast and to each other by way of water — a significantly cheaper form of transport than road or railway. By positioning this “second coastline” to become one of the nation’s new economic cores, Beijing seeks to build what no previous dynasty could: a truly unified Chinese economy.

The Yangtze as a Core

The Yangtze River is the key geographic, ecological, cultural and economic feature of China. Stretching 6,418 kilometers from its source in the Tibetan Plateau to its terminus in the East China Sea, the river both divides and connects the country. To its north lie the wheat fields and coal mines of the North China Plain and Loess Plateau, which unified China’s traditional political cores. Along its banks and to the south are the riverine wetlands and terraced mountain faces that historically supplied China with rice, tea, cotton and timber. The river passes through the highlands of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, the fertile Sichuan Basin, the lakes and marshes of the Middle Yangtze and on to the trade hubs of the Yangtze River Delta. Its watershed touches 19 provinces and is central to the economic life of more people than the populations of Russia and the United States combined. The river’s dozens of tributaries reach from Xian, in the southern Shaanxi province, to northern Guangdong — a complex of capillaries without which China likely would never have coalesced into a single political entity.
The Yangtze, even more than the Yellow River, dictates the internal constraints on and strategic imperatives of China’s rulers. The Yellow River may be the origin of the Han Chinese civilization, but on its own it is far too weak to support the economic life of a great power. The Yellow River is China’s Hudson or Delaware. By contrast, the Yangtze is China’s Mississippi — the river that enabled China to become an empire.
Just as the Mississippi splits the United States into east and west, the Yangtze divides China into its two most basic geopolitical units: north and south. This division, more than any other, forms the basis of Chinese political history and provides China’s rulers with their most fundamental strategic imperative: unity of the lands above and below the river. Without both north and south, there is no China, only regional powers. Only after the Qin captured the Yangtze’s three primary regions — the Upper, Middle and Lower stretches — in 221 B.C., thereby gaining access to the southeast coast, did “China” as a single unit come into being. In the two millennia since, the Yangtze has continued to mark the boundary between kingdom and empire. The constant cycle between periods of unity (when one power takes the lands north and south of the Yangtze) and disunity (when that power breaks into its constituent regional parts) constitutes Chinese political history.
If the Yangtze did not exist, or if its route had veered downward into South and Southeast Asia (like most of the rivers that begin on the Tibetan Plateau), China would be an altogether different and much less significant place. Its population would be much smaller, isolated to the southeast coast, Loess Plateau and North China Plain — the only parts of Han China where economic life does not depend on the Yangtze. The provinces of central China, which today produce more rice than all of India, would be as barren as Central Asia. Regional commercial and political power bases like the Yangtze River Delta or the Sichuan Basin would never have emerged. The entire flow of Chinese history would be different.
Three regions in particular make up the bulk of the Yangtze River Basin: the Upper (encompassing present-day Sichuan and Chongqing), Middle (Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi) and Lower Yangtze (Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, as well as Shanghai and parts of Anhui). Geography and time have made these regions into distinct and relatively autonomous units, each with its own history, culture and language. Each region has its own hubs — Chengdu and Chongqing for the Upper Yangtze; Wuhan, Changsha and Nanchang for the Middle Yangtze; and Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai for the Lower Yangtze. Each region has its own internal market networks, and each historically is more interested in protecting its autonomy and prosperity than uniting under the north’s control. Conquering and integrating them from the outside therefore required not only overwhelming military power — historically, northern China’s advantage — but also complex bureaucratic and internal security apparatuses. Finally, it required a transport and communications infrastructure comprehensive enough to make the exercise of central authority over vast distances and diverse populations feasible.
Between 1949 and 1978, the Communist Party expanded those networks and laid that infrastructure with brutal efficiency. In many ways, China was more deeply united under Mao Zedong than under any emperor since Kangxi in the 18th century. After 1978, the foundations of internal cohesion began to shift and crack as the reform and opening process directed central government attention and investment away from the interior (Mao’s power base) and toward the coast. Today, faced with the political and social consequences of that process, the Party is once again working to reintegrate and recentralize — both in the sense of slowly reconsolidating central government control over key sectors of the economy and, more fundamentally, forcibly shifting the economy’s productive core inland. The first phase of this process will be driven in large part by urbanization along the Yangtze River corridor, especially in the provinces that make up China’s traditional Upper and Middle Yangtze regions.

Politics and Economy of the Yangtze

Today, the Yangtze River is by far the world’s busiest inland waterway for freight transport. In 2011, more than 1.6 billion metric tons of goods passed through it, representing 40 percent of the nation’s total inland waterborne cargo traffic and about 5 percent of all domestic goods transport that year — up 250 percent from 2004. Over the last decade, dramatic increases in waterway freight traffic have been seen in some provinces along the Yangtze River corridor, such as Anhui (840 percent, to 364 million tons), Chongqing (640 percent, to 117 million tons) and Hunan (500 percent, to 179 million tons). By 2011, the nine provincial capitals that sit along the Yangtze and its major tributaries had a combined gross domestic product of $1 trillion, up from $155 billion in 2001. That gives these cities a total wealth roughly comparable to the gross domestic products of South Korea and Mexico.
This growth, since roughly 2003, has been underpinned by a massive expansion in centrally allocated fixed-asset investment into the interior, and specifically to those parts of the interior Beijing considers most viable as potential alternative or supplemental industrial bases to the southeast coast. Unsurprisingly, areas with ready access to the Yangtze River system have been targeted as cores of future inland urbanization. In part, this is because cities like Chongqing and Wuhan already possess well-developed urban industrial infrastructures, the legacy of Mao’s intensive focus on inland industrialization. This legacy in turn gives these cities comparatively more influence and leverage than less developed parts of the interior when it comes to extracting central government financial support. Finally, cities along the Yangtze benefit from geography: Transport by road is roughly 30-35 times more expensive than transport by water, and rail is 3-3.5 times as expensive, meaning that cities without direct access to the Yangtze are inherently less viable as manufacturing and trade hubs.
Investment in further industrial development along the Yangtze River reflects not only an organic transformation in the structure of the Chinese economy but also the intersection of complex political forces. First, there is a clear shift in central government policy away from intensive focus on coastal manufacturing at the expense of the interior (the dominant approach throughout the 1990s and early 2000s) and toward better integrating China’s diverse regions into a coherent national economy. But how that policy shift plays out on regional, provincial and local levels is shaped less by dictates from Beijing than by the political maneuvering of local and provincial governments for central government favor. Access to navigable waterways enables the cities of the western and central stretches of the Yangtze River to lobby more effectively for credit and tax rebates that might otherwise have gone to less competitive, landlocked provinces.
Investment in the interior accelerated rapidly in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, when the sudden evaporation of external demand revealed just how fragile and imbalanced China’s economy had become. Thirty years of export-oriented manufacturing centered in a handful of coastal cities generated huge wealth and created hundreds of millions of jobs. But it also created an economy characterized by deep discrepancies in the geographic allocation of resources and by very little internal cohesion. By 2001, the economies of Shanghai and Shenzhen, for instance, were in many ways more connected to those of Tokyo, Seoul and Los Angeles than of the hinterlands of Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces. For most of the 1990s and 2000s, this lack of cohesion was viewed as an unfortunate but necessary and temporary byproduct of an economic model that was otherwise doing its job. After the 2008-2009 financial crisis, internal economic disunity — like the growth model it embodied — became a social and political liability.
The foundation of this model was an unending supply of cheap labor. In the 1980s, such workers came primarily from the coast. In the 1990s, when coastal labor pools had been largely exhausted, factories welcomed the influx of migrants from the interior. Soon, labor came to replace coal, iron ore and other raw materials as the interior’s most important export to coastal industrial hubs.

By the mid-2000s, between 250 million and 300 million migrant workers had fled from provinces like Henan, Anhui and Sichuan (where most people still lived on near-subsistence farming) in search of work in coastal cities.

This continual supply of cheap labor from the interior kept Chinese manufacturing cost-competitive throughout the 2000s — far longer than if Chinese factories had only had the existing coastal labor pool to rely on. But in doing so, it kept wages artificially low and, in turn, systematically undermined the development of a domestic consumer base. This was compounded by the fact that very little of the wealth generated by coastal manufacturing went to the workers. Instead, it went to the state in the form of savings deposits into state-owned banks, revenue from taxes and land sales, or profits for the state-owned and state-affiliated enterprises that controlled not only many of the major coastal factories but also the various inputs that made manufacturing possible: roads, rail and port construction; power generation; mining; and oil and natural gas. (Notably, state-owned enterprises continue to dominate heavy industrial manufacturing).
This dual process — accumulation of wealth by the state and systematic wage repression in low-end coastal manufacturing — significantly hampered the development of China’s domestic consumer base. But even more troubling was the effect of labor migration, coupled with the relative lack of central government attention to enhancing inland industry throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, on the economies of interior provinces.
Remittances from the coast kept families in the interior alive and paid for children of migrant workers to attend school, but they did little to improve the overall vitality of inland provincial economies. As a result, when the children of the first generation of migrant laborers reached working age, many of them followed their parents to the coast, where employment opportunities were far more abundant. However, unlike their parents, who had families to care for back in Henan and Sichuan, the new generation of migrants had far less incentive to one day return inland, let alone send money back. With the possible exception of a handful of inland cities (Hefei, Wuhan, Changsha and Chongqing, all of which saw marginal to moderate population growth between 2001 and 2011), the interior came to represent poverty and backwardness, a place to abandon rather than to develop.
Beijing has long understood that it will have to change that perception — and the economic and policy realities underlying it — before it can hope to address the growing structural imbalances of its current economic model. But in China, this is easier said than done. In trying to urbanize and industrialize the interior, Beijing is going against the grain of Chinese history — a multimillennia saga of failed attempts to overcome the radical constraints of geography, population, food supply and culture through ambitious central government development programs. Though its efforts thus far have yielded notable successes, such as rapid expansion of the country’s railway system and soaring economic growth rates among inland provinces, they have not yet addressed a number of pivotal questions. Before it can move forward, Beijing must address the reform of the hukou (or household registration) system and the continued reliance on centrally allocated investment, as opposed to consumption, as a driver of growth.

Stratfor provides additional coverage of China beyond the website as part of our Custom Solutions offerings. Recent projects have focused on China’s political, economic, infrastructural, energy and mining development. To learn more about these services, please visit

The Geopolitics of the Yangtze River: Developing the Interior

Risks Ahead in the South China Sea

by John-Clark Levin & Graham Penrose, TMG Corporate Services (Intelography), January.04, 2015

MADRID –- The past year has seen a bold new round of provocations in the South China Sea, where the People’s Republic of China is trying to expand its regional hegemony. The central issue is territorial. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, nations can claim exclusive economic rights in waters up to 200 nautical miles off their coastline. Where these zones would overlap, claims generally go to the nearest state.

According to these principles, most of the economically vital South China Sea is shared between Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. But China claims the Spratly islands, a rocky and unpopulated archipelago deep inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—and the Paracel islands, a group of reefs and islands close to Vietnam.

According to Beijing, its EEZ projects from both island chains, which puts almost the entire South China Sea in Chinese hands. At stake is strategic control of sea lanes that carry an estimated $5.3 trillion in annual trade, highly lucrative fishing stocks, and promising oil and gas resources. Although most of the South China Sea’s proven reserves lie in undisputed areas, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 2.5 billion barrels of oil and 25.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may be available around the Spratlys.

In addition to these economic incentives, the dispute is also motivated by China’s aspirations to assert itself as the preeminent power in Asia. China’s latest tactics have serious security consequences for everyone with an interest in the South China Sea. Not content to pursue its dispute through lengthy lawsuits and international arbitration, Beijing is attempting to gain an advantage by changing the “facts on the ground.”

That is, by gaining effective control over disputed areas, China can strengthen its legal position in the sense of the old saying “possession is nine tenths of the law.” If it can actively exploit the disputed zones and convince world markets to accept its claims, other nations’ legal objections will be largely moot. China is working to establish such control by a combination of unilateral resource grabs and confrontational moves against rival militaries in the region.

On January 1 of last year, China instituted new rules requiring foreign fishing vessels to obtain permits in order to fish in much of the South China Sea. The move drew criticism from Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States, but none were in a position to force the Chinese to back down. In an excellent analysisthe following month, analyst Robert Haddick called out Beijing for pursuing a policy of “salami-slicing”.

The metaphor contextualizes the new fishing restrictions as part of a larger pattern of incremental moves that included the sudden establishment of a Chinese city on Woody Island in the Paracels in July 2012, and the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea in November 2013. In 2014, Chinese survey vessels have reportedly been operating discreetly in the Philippines’ EEZ, likely to gain a better sense of the petroleum resources that might be available there. Beijing was clearly betting that no single step would be enough for its neighbors to risk armed conflict—but that collectively, they would achieve China’s goal of controlling the South China Sea.

In the months that followed, the salami-slicing continued. In March 2014, Chinese Coast Guard vessels turned back a pair of ships sent by Manila to reprovision Filipino troops stationed on a disputed outpost in the Spratlys. Then in May, China set up a billion-dollar oil rig unannounced in disputed waters off Vietnam, surrounded by a flotilla of protective ships from the Chinese Maritime Police Bureau.

Vietnamese vessels went out to meet them, leading to several days of vigorous clashes between the two sides, using water cannons and ramming actions. In June, Hanoi released video of a Chinese vessel ramming a Vietnamese fishing boat that soon sank. China appears not to have suffered any comparable losses. In July, China unilaterally withdrew the rig— stating that it had completed its exploratory mission — but Vietnam would have been in no position to prevent it from staying.

Then, in August, a Chinese fighter intercepted an American reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea, performing abrupt manoeuvres perilously close to the U.S. aircraft. This risked a repeat of the 2001 incident off Hainan Island where such a mid-air collision led to a diplomatic crisis after the crew of the crippled American plane was interned on Chinese soil for 11 days. Instead of sober reflection, Chinese Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong exhorted his pilots: “A knife at the throat is the only deterrence. From now on, we must fly even closer to U.S. surveillance aircraft”.

This combination of brinksmanship and salami-slicing by incremental and escalating actions is dangerous indeed. The worst-case scenario, of course, is a full-on armed confrontation—but both the Chinese and their opponents realize that war would be catastrophic. Much more likely is a steady drumbeat of small grabs that pose risk to those wishing to do business in the South China Sea.

In 2012, China National Offshore Oil Corp invited foreign companies to bid on nine oil exploration blocks within Vietnam’s internationally-recognized EEZ, apparently including some areas which had already been leased out by Vietnam. While major firms like Exxon Mobil have so far avoided wading into the disputed zones, and will likely continue to do so, smaller players with less to lose have expressed interest. In comparison, around the same time, the Philippines invited bidding on two oil blocks in disputed territory, but received rather little interest.

Going forward, how oil and gas companies invest their money will send a strong signal about who is winning the struggle for the South China Sea. Those who lease disputed blocks from Vietnam or the Philippines are betting that China will ultimately bow to pressure by the United States and its allies in the region. Those who lease from China are betting that Beijing’s grabs will prove irreversible.

Whatever firms bet, there will be more provocations. Survey ships and drilling platforms can expect to be harassed by the other side, and company personnel and equipment may be endangered by the struggle going on around them. Some firms will likely hire private security vessels for protection. Although such forces would be no match for Chinese warships in an armed confrontation, their presence would make it riskier and more difficult to drive away client assets. Armed guards aboard platforms could be employed as an additional deterrent.

This poses serious risks, though—untrained private security could instigate a clash by mistake, and even a small spark in the South China Sea has the potential to escalate to international conflict. Further, the 100 Series Rules for the Use of Force, which were developed in 2013 to provide broad guidance for private maritime security companies, are intended for actions against pirates, and would not provide sound guidance for potential standoffs with state actors. For companies wishing to hire security, then, retaining only the most experienced and professional private maritime security companies must be a priority.

About John-Clark Levin is an author and maritime security expert, currently pursuing his research at Harvard University. He has written for publications such as the Wall Street JournalSouthern Economic JournalPacific Maritime Magazine, and War on the Rocks. He has lectured on the subject of private maritime security at institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, the Center for Security Policy, and the U.S. Naval War College.
About Graham Penroseis the owner of TMG Corporate Services, Intelography & JGE Kinetics: Established in 1994 TMG Corporate Services serves clients in Europe, the USA, Asia-Pac and Africa providing Private Maritime Security Services; Private Military Security Services; Global Asset Tracing & Recovery; Security & Risk Management; Specialist Surveillance Services; Counter & Anti Surveillance Services; Human Intelligence (HUMINT); Open Source Intelligence (OSINT); Close Protection Services; Digital Forensics, Image Enhancement & eDiscovery and HEAT (Hostile Environment Awareness Training). JGE Kinetics sources and supplies – under license / EUC – armaments, armoured vehicles, surveillance equipment, UAV drones and military communications equipment.

About Intelography: Intelography offers subscription based access to risk profiling, threat assessments and security trends for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Providing content and insights that allow organizations to inform the process of reacquiring, recommissioning, maintaining and protecting (physical and human) assets in conflict, post conflict or high risk areas. Content and analysis includes contributions from staff analysts, internationally recognized subject matter experts, guest contributors, content syndication from established industry observers and service providers, thought leaders, complimented by an extensive network of in country contributors (Israel, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, CIS, Ukraine, Russia, the Balkans, West Africa). Subscription pricing varies according to access requirements and is offered on an ad-hoc, region specific or global access basis. Additional services include one-to-one analyst Q&A’s, workshops, consulting, and re-publication rights.

8. module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A11%22%7D&_r=0
9. 10.