Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Happy Drunks

 

 

Sitting at a bar recently I blurted out, I’m glad I’m a happy drunk, which brought out a few chuckles. Lots of times I’ll say something on the spur of the moment, only to realize just a bit later that that wasn’t really what I meant. Sometimes I get a chance to clarify, but usually the conversation rolls on and I leave a strange or puzzling impression.

What I meant was I’m glad I’m not the type of drinker who gets tedious, annoying, abrasive, violent, you know, shit like that.

All of us pub frequenters have come across inebriates who we wish would just go home, or at least back off and shut up. They may be fine when they’re sober, you may like them as people, but you wish they would find somewhere else to display their pitying and embarrassing drunkenness.

But first, going back one step, I really don’t consider myself a drunk. That, as far as I’m concerned, refers to people who drink so much they can barely see straight or stand up or find their way home without assistance. I’m fortunate in a sense that my capacity is limited so that long before I’d otherwise get to the state of being in a blind drunken stupor I’ve barfed my guts out and vowed never to do that again. (I’ve also saved a ton of money in my life by not being able to down more than 6 drinks or so in an evening… but that’s another story.)

There are actually quite a few categories of drinkers: before you even get to the drunks, on the top level you have the alcoholics, people who need to wake up with a beer or two just to start their day.

Some years ago in Portland I was in a convenience store at about 7am. Before me in the check out line was a guy buying an 18 pack of beer. After he left I commented to the clerk that it seemed a bit early for beer. He said the guy came in every morning for his 18 cans of beer. The guy, who was about 40 or 50, had a great smile, he was radiant. Yes his face was red and splotchy, but he seemed relatively together and for sure he looked happy. I think we can all accept that he was slowly killing himself, but what if all that alcohol was the only way he could stand living? Who knows what kinds of demons and hang-ups he was carrying around with him? In the end it’s probably a cop-out of some sort, but who am I to judge?

Our adopted country is very conducive to all types of drinking. It also stimulates a lot of people to complain about and rag on all the old (and not so old) geezers here who have nothing better to do than hang around drinking all day… but if they also are sporting big warm grins and being, or at least looking like they’re happy, is there something wrong with that?

Okay, they’re not being productive, but maybe they did lots of producing in the past. Anyway it’s their lives, if they’re happy, smiling, giving off warmth and good vibes and they have the money to pay for that alcohol what’s the difference? Who cares? Sure, it’s a loss to society in some fashion that the only productive thing they do is look happy and presumably spread their good vibes. It’s also a failing of society that so many people are left to flounder, cast adrift in unfriendly seas, left without a purpose in life; though not knowing him, I can’t really say if he’s not producing. I knew a guy once who worked for an NGO in China. He’d wake up at 3am, work his ass off until about 9am and then spend the rest of the day drinking himself into a stupor.

I believe everybody has a right to their own poison. For sure society should try to educate people on the damage they’re doing to themselves. But the idea that society should tax alcohol so stiffly that only the middle and upper classes can afford to drink is totally unfair. It robs the poor of the ability to escape the grind of daily life or causes them to spend so much of their income on booze they’re forced to neglect the other aspects of life. I also feel that way about cannabis and stuff; life is hard enough, why deny people that little bit of relief they might get from those psychic painkillers?

Most people who imbibe, like myself, are social drinkers rather than alcoholics or drunks, but we are all there for the same basic reason: there’s something about it that loosens you up, overwhelms your inhibitions and just lets you relax and be yourself. The ability to enjoy life through alcohol is greatly facilitated by Cambodia’s relaxed attitude towards the stuff, including very low taxes, and the ease of starting businesses where alcohol is served. Beer is so cheap I can go out almost every night on my scanty income and drink to my physical limit, which is about 6 cans. That allows me to be on the town, hanging with friends, laughing, joking, sometimes being a little silly and sloppy but altogether having a great time.

Back in the states I’d be home alone drinking a couple or three lonely beers a night. Here in Cambo on the one or two nights a week that I force myself to stay home, or am forced to stay home because of the hangover from the night before, I generally don’t drink at all, or at most one beer. Of course I’m bored silly but I don’t need the alcohol to escape, only to enjoy.

But many people do use it to escape, though there’s a fine line between drinking to be happy and doing same to escape. A young guy I know said he’d be hiding out at home being all morose and mopey if he wasn’t drinking. So what’s the difference if it makes you happy or simply allows you to survive as a social being? Just about everybody needs a prop, a crutch, a helping hand to negotiate our crazy world. You know what they say, If you’re not crazy in our insane, topsy-turvy world, there must be something wrong with you.

Some people get their boost to carry through life from religion or causes or such like workaholism, but it’s hard to say if they are more content than the typical happy drunk. They’ll probably live longer, all things being equal, but even there there’s a question, since studies have shown that people who drink moderately – 2 drinks a day – generally live longer than abstainers. That begs the question of whether the moderate drinker lives longer from some type of healthy aspect of the drink itself or merely from the relaxation and ease of tension that comes from drinking. In fact it’s probably a bit of both.

The drunk, happy or not, will probably pop off early brought to their end with some type of liver disease, heart attack, stroke. If they’re lucky their demise will come quickly, otherwise it could mean years of partial paralysis or debilitating illness. So even while it’s one of the elixirs of life, which I personally would find it hard to live without, it carries a serious warning and message; the need to be conscious of it’s dangers and the importance of not sloughing that off as inconsequential.

This reminds me of my youth and people’s warnings about tobacco. Many people are under the impression that tobacco’s evils weren’t known or understood until the seventies or later because of the massive effort of the tobacco companies to obfuscate and sow doubt, but we teens in the fifties called them coffin nails, there was no doubt in any of our minds. When warned about smoking back then I would haughtily proclaim that I wanted to enjoy life then and I didn’t care if I died early as long as I lived to the year 2000, which would’ve made me 59. Well it’s been almost 18 years since then and I’m still going strong and it was immature and stupid to think that way. It’s most important not to fool ourselves, pretend it’s no big deal. The effect it has on our bodies is not inconsequential. Sure, we can joke about hangovers and such, but every time we feel weak, washed out and headachy from drinking to excess it’s like we’re torturing our bodies.

While alcohol brings out the best in some people, it evokes the worst in others. Happy drunks inhabit a serene space that kinda hovers in another dimension. There’s never a nasty word or challenging and testy confrontation. They’re just there beaming away in their own seventh heaven.

On the other hand belligerence, violence, tediousness come from alcohol unleashing those inner demons we keep in check when we are sober and fully conscious. The thing about it is, when inebriates get in that mode, that mood, they often can’t give it up. They keep pushing and needling and are incapable of taking a hint. They can’t be reasoned with but continually repeat what you were not very interested in in the first time. One local character when he can barely see or stand up keeps saying he needs to go home, but can’t bring himself to make the move. They are too far gone to be able to communicate, let alone take a hint. You can’t get through to them that it’s time to call it a night, that they’d save themselves from being an embarrassment and all around nuisance, not to mention danger to themselves.

When you do try to hold a conversation, they’ll repeat their favorite inanities until you’re frustratingly blue in the face. They’re incapable of intelligent conversation. Of course it doesn’t take a drunk or even a drinker to be an obnoxious interrupter, but it does make it decidedly worse when their interruptions are inane or incoherent or repetitive. Sometimes they’re stuck on their theme and not only can’t give it up but actually derive pleasure from seeing how freaked out and unglued you become.

A lot of people look on conversation as a competition. They won’t let you get three words out before they have to put their two cents in. My responses to being cut off correspond to the situation and how upset I am. One thing I’ll do after I’ve been interrupted a few times is to clam up. If they’re so intent on holding a conversation with themselves I just let them talk. After a while I may just ignore them. Sometimes I’ll just continue talking right over their heads, especially if it’s more than a two way conversation. My voice is pretty strong so I’ll just get louder and keep at it and pretend they don’t exist. Eventually many will get the message and shut up for a bit. If they don’t I may lose it and start yelling and tell them to stop interrupting and let someone else speak. I’m not especially proud of that since getting angry always indicates your own inadequacies and problems to solve and I often have to apologize. It’s better to end the sorta conversation than get all bent out of shape.

Without Kampot’s bar scene my life would be ho-hum, hum-drum, average to a fault. Sure Kampot’s a beautiful, peaceful, easy place to live with lots of healthy, happy things to do around town and countryside, but the bars make life into a joy. It does get a bit boring at times going out almost every night, but that’s far outweighed by the great and fun times the drinking scene offers. Unfortunately I’m beginning to realize that at my age I can no longer safely, sanely do my 6 beers, because combined with the ever improving weed that I partake of, I’m starting to lose my equilibrium, even staggering sometimes. That’s even with diluting my beer with ice… I drink at the same pace whether it’s straight or watered down and one dollar beers aren’t any great shakes anyway. Watering down my beer means I have to wake up almost every hour at night to pee, but that’s the breaks. I’m going to have to start substituting non-alcoholics because I want to keep up this life as long as I can, it’s the perfect coda to a long, and oftentimes in the past, difficult life.

Moto Mayhem III.

The third annual Daelim and other small bike drag races were held on Saturday December 16. It was supposed to be held in November at Kampot’s Olympic stadium but the authorities kept dragging their feet with the permit. Steve spent $70 in $10 dollar each paperwork fees only to be continually put off. Sure it’s okay, they’d say, we just have to wait on the Bong Tum – big man. This was probably because there were renovations happening on the grandstand.

As an alternative, they were offered Kampot’s other Olympic stadium, which neither I nor anyone I know had ever heard of before… and I’ve been here ten years. (Why do they have to label every large sports facility Olympic? As if, huh?) It was passable as a venue, but nowhere near as good as the one in town. In the first place it’s 5.5 kilometers from town which limited the spectators to half the previous year. And then the track was grass, not preferred for racing, and so participants were also reduced by half. Nonetheless, it was great fun for those who attended, and is sure to be an annual event. As a friend pointed out, winning time was about equal to Usain Bolt’s record for the 100 meter.

Finally, another untimely death has occurred here in Kampot. Patrick, our Belgian baker died suddenly in his sleep… and only 58-years-old. He was liked by all, though a little tiresome as a drinker – see above. I saw him in the bar just a few hours earlier looking fit and strong so it’s a mystery why he popped off. You can never know, can you?

In a final note, it’s high season and the town is hopping. Lots of new venues which I’ll try to cover next time and lots of tourists and returning snow birds are keeping a lot of places busy.

But it’s damn cold as I write this, 20C – 68F – and I’m wearing two shirts, wishing I had a wool cap and almost ready to wear socks! I prefer to sweat, but a few cool days is a small price to pay for an almost endless summer.

 

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Kampot, Cambodia

Festivals and Such

First, before I come to the festivals, there’s sad news to report. Within a few days 3 people died here in Kampot. First there was two young backpacker women who died overnight in a local guest house. There was no indication of foul play. They both had been vomiting and very sick the night before and both had taken the same medication. I expect they had eaten at the same place, food poisoning is not uncommon here, and took meds that might’ve been fake or improper for their ailment. We’ll never know since the local police have no way to do autopsies.

A short time later the body of 51-year-old Paul Trent, a long time expat, was discovered 2 or 3 days after he passed. He had been going through terrible back and sciatic nerve pain and had been taking, let’s say experimenting with different meds. The doctor would say, try this for a month, if it doesn’t work we’ll try something different. Once again without a proper autopsy, we’ll never know. He looked fine except for the chronic pain, so I assume it was the meds. He was the kind of guy who was liked by all, enemy of none. He lived here for nearly ten years and is sorely missed. A wake was held at the Dog House and a couple days later at O’Neil’s, both well attended by his many friends.

The above was written a couple weeks ago. We’ve suffered another sad loss since then; Patrick, Kampot’s Belgian baker died in his sleep just a few days ago. They say it was a stroke. I had seen him at the bar just a few hours before he passed, he seemed totally normal, nothing out of the ordinary. Hard to believe. You never know.

The third annual Kampot Readers and Writers Festival was held at the beginning of November. It had its good points but followed a downhill trend from the first one. For instance in the first go-round the organizers printed up a beautiful large, fold-up schedule of events and there were lots of them; workshops, readings, short films. Lots of local businesses opened up their places for the events.

Last year there was no printed schedule at all for the first day: finding out what was happening that day required a visit to their little streetside headquarters. The schedule for the remaining days was hastily-put-together, graphic-art-challenged, sheets of white paper. There were, in fairness, still quite a few events for the literary crowd.

For this last one there was no printed schedule at all, very scant information on the festival’s web and FB pages, and no notice whatever on the Kampot Noticeboard FB page by the organizers… how hard could that’ve been? The only schedules on the noticeboard were put there by participants. I heard of a couple poetry sessions, but that’s about all there was regarding writing or reading, at least that I knew about.

For me personally, as a writer, all three festivals were disappointing. It seems to me, if you’re running an event based on writing in a small town like Kampot, you’d want to make a point of contacting all the writers who live in the town to get them on board and help them promote their work and engage the community. The first festival I sent a message asking for a time slot and venue, but was completely ignored. The second year I and two author friends put together a session on our own, secured the venue and did our own publicity. This last time I had a friend who had set up an event for me but then she fell out with the chief of the festival and the whole thing fell through.

With all the disorganization they did manage to discover The Lotus Villa. It faces the south end of The Pond, our one park. It’s a very large old house in a big lot and a fine new venue for concerts. They managed to fill up three nights’ schedules. Artists from Kampot and way beyond served up excellent sets. There were probably 150 people there, which was surprising given that there had been extremely little publicity. Even with that number of people there was lots of room to spare. The place includes a large grassy area where the band set up. There was ample space in front of the band for people to hang out, even picnic. What really makes it perfect, though, is that hardly anybody lives right there, it’s mostly public buildings or the pond itself, so there’s hardly anybody to feel put out by having loud music nearby. It wasn’t that loud, but there will always be someone to complain.

After last year’s disappointment at the disorganized way the event was run and the excessive control over it by one person who seemed to be doing it as a personal project (and also it seemed for personal gain) rather than a community endeavor, most of us agreed that this year should be different. Well it wasn’t, except being worse. It was fine as a music event, but a bust as a literary event.

As if in response, a community run art festival is being put together for the beginning of January. They’ve already put up very nice promotional banners and have put regular announcements on the Kampot noticeboard. It’s bound to be a success.

On Sunday afternoon of the same weekend, Champa Lodge did one of their Live on the River shows. It’s in a quiet, beautiful setting about 5 kilometers upstream from town, so it’s far enough to be safe for swimming – there’s not many people living upstream – and it has a nice little beach. It’s at the far end of a U in the river so looking out you see the relatively close opposite bank but then on both sides you can see the river for quite a long distance and Bokor Mountain in the distance.

They have a shelter on the river that doubles as a perfect bandstand and it was a showcase for town’s musicians. There’s lots of greenery and grass which makes it great for kids to run around in. That was also true of the Lotus Villa where the festival was held. One of the really heartwarming things about these afternoon gatherings in Kampot is the number of kids running around meeting other kids and in general having a great time. It makes a real community to have people of all ages in attendance. Champa is planning to do it once a month through the dry season with maybe some special events added at times.

November 11 was the third annual air guitar championships at the Pond Guest House. Maybe 70 or 80 people showed up. I went last year for my first air guitar experience. I had previously thought the whole idea to be silly but it was more than silly, it was hilarious, I’ve rarely laughed so hard. It sounds easy, but it does take style, panache and a bit of courage to get up and make it funny enough to cop the prize. Here of course, almost everybody knows the contestants so it’s another community event, and like the others, with plenty of kids around. The Pond is more known for it’s once a month outdoor market in the high season. It’s definitely not worth it in rainy season; nobody’s around – not many anyways – not enough to chance a rainy day. In addition to its sheltered area where there’s a bandstand and room for seating, there’s a wide expanse of grass and lots of room for people to sell their wares and also hang out and relax on the springy green stuff.

Then there are the regular music events. Every Sunday at Billabong Guest House is Sunday Sessions with afternoon and early evening music and partying. They have a pool, a fine place for water lovers to hang out, which also includes a pool bar so you imbibe while sitting in the water. It’s a good place to hang out to finish off the weekend. With the pool it’s also kid friendly.

Tuesdays it’s always packed at Karma Traders a bit north of town. The music venue is up on the second floor (third floor American) so there’s always a strong breeze blowing through. Always good music and a good crowd.

Wednesdays it’s music night at the Magic Sponge. At 10 pm it’s a jam with all musicians invited. You’ll often find me there, sometimes with a sax, sometimes with my congas. I always appreciate a chance to play.

Thursdays there’s live music at Nellie’s Farm, a relaxed outdoor setting. It’s also north of town about 100 meters before Karma Traders.

Fridays it’s Banyan Tree on the opposite, west side of the river on Teuk Chhou Rd. they feature live music before the disco kicks in around 10.30 or 11 pm. They’ve managed to figure out a way to keep the volume up enough for the dance floor without disturbing the neighbors. What a relief, my favorite place to dance lately. Music doesn’t need to be loud to inspire a dancing mood, but it can’t be too soft, then it’s not enough.

Finally to round out the week, it’s Naga House, also on the west side of the river. Like Banyan Tree the dance floor is right on the river, so really cool and pleasant. Unfortunately their space doesn’t go well with live music so it’s only disco. Still a place to be. They’ve also announced, warned people, that the volume goes down at midnight.

I’m sure there are others I’ve left out. Sorry I just can’t keep up anymore. I used to know almost everybody in town – I’ve lived here for 10 years – now I’ve got to be content to know quite a few people at some events. People are coming to live here so fast, especially from Sihanoukville where an invasion (that’s what some people would call it) of Chinese has some people grumbling and running for the exits, there’s no way, for me at least, to be able to review all the new venues.

A word on stage lighting is in order: most people seem to blow off lighting as of secondary importance. As a result most of the staged events I’ve attended recently had lighting that ranged from tolerable by accident to atrocious by design. The worst was the writers festival stage at the Lotus Villa. There was a row of very bright glaring lights at the back of the stage facing out so it practically hurt your eyes to look at it and it put the performers faces in shadow. It’s the front of the stage that needs to be lit and facing back, not forward into the crowd. Doing it right requires spotlights. You want the performers to be brightly lit and nothing else.

The spate of bag snatchings mentioned recently has become an epidemic. It’s happening really often, sometimes in areas that’re quite busy and at relatively early times, like before 9 o’clock. You do see the police out at night at times, but they come sitting in the back of pick-up trucks. That’s not the way to deter the bad guys, they need to be out in motorbikes cruising around surreptitiously, on the lookout in vehicles that allow for a good chase. A group of expats have formed to try to counter the trend.

Kampotradio.com is starting to catch on, both with listeners and with presenters. At times as many as 2000 people are tuning in. Most are here in town and around Cambodia, but listeners come from all over the world. Now on some days we have presenters from 10am all the way to 8pm.

Personally I’m quite committed. For one, four nights a week, Monday to Thursday from 7 to 8pm, I do a music show spinning those good old tunes… Doors, Taj Mahal, Grateful Dead, you know what I mean. It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate lots of the new stuff, I just don’t know much of it… and I’m too old to learn all those new names and bands. Seems like being into new stuff is more a young thing. Now I’m content to reminisce with the old. At any rate, no way could I put together playlists of new stuff.

My other contribution to the station is my six-days-a-week one minute weather report. It’s recorded and broadcast at noon, 2pm and 4pm. To my fans I’m Stan the Weatherman. That’s in addition to my weather report on the Kampot Noticeboard. I’ve always been interested in the weather. I brought my first weather station to Kampot 9 years ago. I’m now on my third. The first two crapped out on me; electronic devices don’t do so well in our almost always hot and humid climate. And now my third is giving me trouble.

My first two included anemometers – wind speed – and electronic rain gauges. The anemometers never were much good because I couldn’t get them high enough to be accurate. The rain gauges were very nice for seeing how fast it was falling, but not so good on a daily basis. Now my rain calculations come from a $5 plastic rain gauge. And now I have a cheaper station that only includes a barometer and indoor and outdoor temperature and humidity. The one additional piece of equipment is a Stevenson box. It’s the only way to accurately determine temperature. It’s basically a wood box painted white with louvers on all sides to let air come through. It sits 1.3 meters off the ground over a grassy spot; they can’t be located above any kind of pavement that would radiate heat. Finally to insure the temp gauge inside is not impacted in any way by sunlight, it has a little roof, also painted white, over it.

My wind reporting and predictions of upcoming weather comes from the internet. I used to go mostly to Weather Underground – wunderground.com – but since they changed the site’s format their software guys got confused and now they’re reporting temperatures below freezing. They’ve obviously stuck in readings from somewhere very far north. The opening page is correct as to current temperature but wind direction is confused: the graphic has been stuck on North since last dry season, but underneath is the correct direction.

I’ve been messaging them to no avail since mid September when the craziness began. It’s still the best site I’ve found for details on major storms and climate changes so I still go everyday. Now I depend on Weather.com for predictions on temperature and precipitation. Also Ventusky.com has a great map that shows wind and rain and predicts 10 days in advance. The best graphic for current conditions is from earth.nullschool.net. It has a globe that you can spin around to see conditions all over the world… it’s beautiful, especially when it depicts great storms.

Though it’s only November, it feels a lot like high season, there seems to be a lot of people around. It’ll be really busy here in dry season.

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Kampot, Cambodia

Strange September

 

 

September was a very dry month in Kampot. We got only 120 mm of rain when the average is about 270. I don’t ever remember a similar September in my ten years here, of course, there’s a lot of things I don’t remember. Even last year when we got 170, it seemed more normal. The town’s been really quiet in spite of the clement weather which fools you into thinking it should be more like high season. The owner of Kepler’s books, Kampot’s first bookstore – we now have two – says that September is always his slowest month. October has followed the September pattern except that it rained every day for a bit, but only in very small amounts… Now at deadline it’s still been relatively very dry, as of the 21st we’ve had only 1/4th of average for October. Meanwhile almost every few days we see pictures of Phnom Penh under water. Cambodia is small but still there can be very big differences in climate. Even just within a few kilometers of central Kampot there can be big differences sometimes, at least in rainfall.

Rip-off. One local saga that came to a head in September, even though it began earlier, was the rip-off by a local travel agent of a lot of money that was paid for visa extensions. She also regularly took money and passports from another agent to add to her customers. At some point she snapped, saw all that cash moving through her hands, and just kept it. When people came for their passports, she kept saying there was a delay. By the time she was found out, the other agent was out the $17,000 that it took to make good on all the passport and overstay fees. I don’t know how much she took from her own customers, but it probably was equal.

So, what did this brilliant thief do with her ill gotten gains?  Did she flee to another part of Cambodia to start a new life under an alias? Did she buy gold and jewelry and bury it so she could retrieve it when she got out of prison? No. She bought land in Kampot!!! How could anyone with at least half a brain think they could get away with something like that? Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. Before she had her own agency, she worked for another and it was her name that a number of people (I don’t know the specifics) used on their land titles in the 51%-49% artifice used to allow foreigners to buy land here. She’s currently on the lam with an arrest warrant out for her. What’s going to happen if any of those landowners need to sell and she isn’t found or not found for an extended period? I can barely imagine the effing hassle that’s going to be.

Shut Down. Banyan Tree is a guesthouse/restaurant/bar on the west side of the river about a kilometer from the main highway. It’s right on the river and a very pleasant place to be. Before it was Banyan Tree it was Bodhi Villa. Going back at least 10 years, there’s been music on that site, both live and recorded every Friday night and all night. Some people have complained about it in the past but it was an institution that had rights.

But then somebody purchased land next door and put up $60 per night bungalows… and complained to his VIP Khmer friend and you know how it works here, so Chiet, the Khmer owner, turned the music down. But it was really down: it was okay on the dance floor, but you could barely hear it otherwise. This rankled so he turned it back up, but not to the point of being loud. My old tortured ears – from loud music and industrial noise –  are extremely sensitive to excessive volume, and I guarantee you it wasn’t loud. Still the uppity guy next door complained again. Once someone like that gets a bug up their ass there’s no placating them.

This resulted in the police coming in at midnight and confiscating his big speakers. He turned it down again, but it wasn’t enough to placate the whiner next door and the police came a second time two weeks later to confiscate another pair of speakers. Chiet showed the police a db meter which clearly indicated that it wasn’t really loud, to no avail. Now they switch to a small speaker set at midnight which is just barely enough to inspire dancing. So it goes.

Meanwhile, the mister moneybags who shut down Madi bar because it was funky and had character, who nixed a bar that sported live and disco music every Thursday night for 5 or 6 years, who murdered some fine old trees that formed a beautiful green canopy over the entrance of the bar, has a new tenant. Did he look for something stylish, cool, trendy? No, he rented to another cheap-assed, butt-ugly, super-tacky, happy fucking pizza restaurant. I can hardly get over it. The cool thing about Madi’s was that since it was owned by a local it attracted lots of Khmers as well as expats, as opposed to most of the places I go that’re almost exclusively westerners.

Strange Street Construction. The city is rebuilding new bridge road again. Just a couple years ago they built a high quality asphalt surface, but it was nowhere near strong enough to handle the massively overloaded rock trucks (and some others) that use the street. Rocks are very heavy, when a truck’s bed is loaded up to its design capacity it’s already really rough on roads, but most rock truck owners here build up the sides and extend the bed to get a bigger payload which adds at least 50% to its weight and as you can guess plays havoc with the road surface.

So a new road surface is now in progress. It’s built strong with reinforced concrete that’s 20 cm – 8 inches – thick and should be able to handle those heavy trucks for a reasonable length of time. Unfortunately and crazily they decided to save money and not excavate the previous surface, but merely build on top of it, with the result that the road surface is basically the same level as the sidewalk, in some cases the road surface is above the level of the market. They are including a runoff channel between the road and sidewalk but I fear it’ll be nowhere near enough to handle a real downpour, especially since the channels are bound to get and stay clogged up with debris. Many shops across from the market are now on street level and they will need a good supply of sandbags to prevent flooding.

Dust Up. Had a little fracas at one of the late night bars recently. Really strange. There’s about 10 people at the bar, guy leaves to pee, comes back, his phone is gone. Well, nobody had come or gone in the short time he was away, so it had to be there. Okay so they turn off the music and someone else rings his number, phone rings, guy goes to answer it. He was traveling through, not a local. The aggrieved party said, That’s my phone. Other guy, a bit drunk, insists it’s his – in spite of the clear evidence that it wasn’t his, I mean they had just called the number right in front of his eyes – and he wants to answer it.

Aggrieved party being a bit of a hot head lunged for him, flew as one eye-witness described,  and mayhem pursued, almost everybody who was in the bar was taking part, mostly jostling out on the street. Finally the unwitting thief was subdued and told to look in his pocket. Sure enough his phone was in the other pocket. With all that ruckus I didn’t hear of any blood being shed or major bruises suffered. It definitely could’ve been handled without the fracas, but when someone has your phone in his hand and insists it’s his, well one can get quite exercised in that situation.

TVs and Bars. I have a near fanatic detestation of TV in general, so as you might expect I’m the opposite of drawn to bars with TVs. If it’s a sports bar or you show movies or special events, then of course it fits, otherwise one of two things happen when there’s a TV in a bar. One is that nobody is watching it, in which case it’s a waste of energy and an unnecessary distraction. Even when I don’t want to look at it, it’s there flashing away in my peripheral vision. If people are watching it then it’s hard to converse, they’re looking up at the boob tube and not able to relate when you’re trying to talk to them.

In terms of my patronage, that’s one strike against the bar. If you understand the baseball analogy, if you miss the ball three times when you’re at bat that’s three strikes and you’re out. If I like you and like the bar and like your clientele, I’ll still come, just not be as enthusiastic.

I don’t listen to music much at home, (except now when I’m preparing for my radio show… more on that later.) I only want quiet, so when I’m out at night, I’m  ready for tunes. So if the sound quality is atrocious and you have a tendency to turn up the volume which then magnifies its horribleness, well that’s another strike. Still, nobody’s perfect and you still have another strike before you’re out, so I’ll still come by at times. If the stools are very comfortable, that’ll definitely help.

Corruption. A while back a friend was having trouble with his Khmer ex-wife over custody of their daughter. The woman was a disaster for the kid so his big challenge was to gain custody. At one point his father came by to help grease the wheels of justice. When I talked to the father he had been here for 2 months and had spent $15,000 on grease.

I talked to the young fella after he was granted custody. He said it had cost $10,000, I guess the earlier $15,000 tranche was only for the preliminaries. Once the process was fully underway it had taken about 2 months to completion, without the extra dough he said it would’ve been 2 years. Three days after all the papers were signed and the deal done and dusted the judge called and said she’d change her mind unless they sent another $3000. The nice thing about living here, if you can afford it, is that justice is fungible, malleable, adaptable. At the same time I feel sorry for the poor bastard who can’t afford the proper grease.

Thieves. The big city has come to Kampot. There’s been a spate of bag-snatchings lately. It’s happening as early as 8 or 9 o’clock. There’re lots of not-well-lit places in our town that’re just off the beaten path. It sometimes happens while walking but mostly from motos. My only advice is to not carry around anything you don’t need for sure that night. You don’t need to carry around your passport, credit cards, and lots of money just to have a few drinks.

Odds and Ends. There’re lots of new bars opening or changing hands, I can’t even keep track anymore. However, being October, with a few exceptions, there aren’t a lot of customers. I’d love to stop in and say hello at all of them, but then I’d be neglecting the ones I’m already most comfortable at. There’re so many new venues, even the high season won’t save all of them. It’s the same old story. Lots of people come, want to stay and need some way to make money or just keep busy so they open another bar or restaurant or river bungalow resort. It makes them feel good and maybe they’ll be one of the lucky ones.

One of the new venues is Kampot Equinox featuring a piano, Frank the owner is going to import pianists from around the US. It’s a beautiful place and the food will be good so it should be successful. NOLA is now the Kampot Hilton (one of the owners’ last name is Hilton). They’ve done a nice job at remodeling and have set up a music room in the back. Next door is Simple Things, a vegetarian restaurant with great food that always seems to be busy. Tortulia, a Portuguese restaurant previously located across the river is moving to town and has rented a fine old colonial building in the center of town that was beautifully restored. It’s a corner building and has the advantage of wide sidewalks on both streets making for lots of outdoor seating. As a testament to Kampot’s changes, the building, which was restored about 8 or 9 years ago, has been sitting vacant all this time. The owner was asking $1000 per month, which back then was a ridiculous amount, but today very reasonable for such a great building and location.

I can’t finish this article without a mention of Indochine beer. They’ve got a wheat beer, which they call White, and an India Pale Ale. The White is very good, and interestingly it’s flavored with coriander and orange peel. It’s got a very nice fruity taste and it’s especially good if you like coriander, which I do. The IPA is excellent, among the best I’ve tasted, and while I’m not the world’s foremost beer critic I have spent a lot of time drinking beer and a lot of time in Portland, one of America’s primo craft brew locations. The only things that keep me from drinking it all the time are that it costs twice as much as the common beers and is hard to justify on my meager social security allotment. It’s also much stronger than your average cheap beer. It’s hard to tell exactly the alcohol content since they seem to be using the same label on both beers. The White is 5% but IPAs generally run about 6.5% and they certainly don’t include coriander in the brewing process. Right after I get paid I definitely indulge myself. The only problem with craft beers (aside from the extra cost) is they have a lot more calories. All that extra flavor comes from richer ingredients.

And finally a note about kampotradio.com. If you like radio with live DJs spinning the tunes, check it out. Since it’s internet radio, it’s available everywhere. I, being Kampot’s official, unofficial weatherman, do a one minute weather report six days a week which plays at noon, 2pm and 4pm. Lately I also do a music show four nights a week from 7 to 8pm Kampot time. For people reading this elsewhere we are 7 hours ahead of GMT. Eastern Standard time is 12 hours behind us. I mostly play those good old tunes… I may like the new stuff, but I don’t know hardly any of it.

 

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China

China – USA – Cambodia

 

I spent 2 ½ years in Kunming, China back in the mid-nineties. It’s a great city with an equable climate and a fine place to ride a bicycle. We expats, though few in number, had a great time there. It was the only city in China at the time where foreigners were allowed to live anywhere in the city as opposed to being forced to live in foreigner enclaves and paying 5 or 10 times as much rent as locals would for the same accommodation.

A lot of its wonderful aspects were obliterated in just in the five years between 1992 when I first visited and January 1997 when I left. Many thousands of beautiful old street trees were cut down and streets were widened by demolishing whole rows of apartments. All that was to accommodate the ending of rules prohibiting private individuals from owning cars. China is a city planner’s wet dream: It was no big deal to displace thousands of people to make wide boulevards. Sometimes people would object, but they had no power, and still have no power to take part in decisionmaking.

While there I met and married a Chinese woman. One night we were sitting watching an English language news broadcast. International news was often informative, though nothing of course negative about China; local news exclusively showed important people greeting foreign dignitaries, important people giving speeches in front of large audiences and glowing reports on the party’s latest accomplishments. As I understand it, that’s a lot like Cambodia’s TV news, since all of the country’s stations are aligned with the ruling party. Unfortunately for the government, more than half the people of Cambodia now get their news from social media. More on that later.

Getting back to the news that night, the headline story was a shipment of four containers of garbage that was supposed to be recycled scrap paper. The presenter was furious, Why is America sending us its garbage? How dare they? As one who spent a long time working in the recycling field, I could imagine what happened. Scrap paper is is very low value and since it’s mixed people sometimes mistake it for garbage so it’s possible some garbage was mixed in with paper. It’s also possible that an unscrupulous dealer sent garbage to avoid the disposal charges… the containers were from New York where disposal charges would be very high.

This was four containers out of the tens or even hundreds of thousands of containers of recycled paper shipped to China every year; a tiny amount.

The other point to consider about this incident is that everything that happens in China is part of government policy, so when the presenter was asking why America was sending its garbage it was as if it was US government action rather than a private business. A similar thing happened when Liu Xiobao, a Chinese dissident, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: China was angry at Norway and boycotted some of that country’s products for a time. Norway tried to explain that the Nobel committee was an independent organization that they didn’t have any control over, but it was no less an affront to China. When he died in prison recently, most Chinese had no idea who he was because information is so tightly controlled there.

Chinese leaders must be intimately familiar with Orwell’s 1984. In it the main character works for a future Ministry of Truth, changing history books to reflect current government priorities. China recently tried to do the same thing with Cambridge University. They demanded that the University erase every article they didn’t like from their periodical China Quarterly to access in China going all the way back to 1961. Ever the bully, China said it would stop buying the Uni’s textbooks, a very lucrative business, if they didn’t comply. Cambridge initially buckled, but the outcry from academia was so fierce they had to backtrack.

China lives in its own bubble. Everywhere in the world outside of China the Dalai Lama is considered a wise and holy man. They consider him an enemy because he tries to stand up for Tibetan rights. They are trying to erase Tibetan Buddhism from China and he gets in the way. Officially atheist communist China has chosen their own malleable version of the next in line. He’s not welcome in a lot of countries because of China’s threats against them, and when he is allowed to visit they make sure he’s not on a state visit, but only comes as a private citizen.

They are trying to create their own alternate reality and this I find dangerous considering their immense population and power and absence of any role the general population plays in decisionmaking. There’s no feedback or pushback to government policy, such as to the widespread degradation of China’s environment. People have no right to protest or demonstrate, though in fact it is happening more and more: we don’t hear much about because of state control of media.

For a long time people complaining about pollution were considered enemies of the state. On the other hand, when China does want to do right by the environment, as their recent announcement that they were going to totally ban the manufacture and sale of combustion engines at some point, they have the power to make it happen that a democratically elected government like the US doesn’t. There are no lobbyists to ply legislators with favors, nor car or oil companies to object since they are all either owned by government or on a short lease.

Getting back to the intro to this piece, when my Chinese wife got to America and discovered almost everything she was buying was made in China she was very surprised, she had no idea. So even while the US was a big part in enabling China’s rising prosperity, they were badmouthing America at every turn. I’m sure it’s exactly the same today. I’m sure the people there have no idea their country is running a 350 billion dollar a year trade surplus with America.

With Trump shelving trade deals, one of the few things he’s gotten right, China has been forthright in pushing free trade. Well of course, if you’re running a trade surplus from almost the entire world, it makes sense to sound the trade hero. Part of their trade prowess comes from know-how and smarts, but they’re also smart about making it difficult for other countries to sell to them, putting up all kinds of non-tariff barriers and other roadblocks.

America has been boosting the world economy for decades by running large trade deficits, but it’s also uniquely able to do so by having the world’s reserve currency. That allows it to print money with abandon. The US dollars we see floating around the world, and 80% of all dollars are outside the US, have been purchased for that purpose. It’s essentially a no interest loan to the US. The other ways America has to cover the deficit is to sell treasury bonds and (literally) sell the farm; that is, letting foreigners buy property and businesses. Other countries including China are seeking to end America’s hegemony over use of the dollar for world trade, but it’s unlikely to ever be totally superseded. Who could trust China’s Yuan for international payments when they can devalue it at their whim? It has been rising lately, but that can change whenever it suits them. A case in point: When China’s stock market crash happened a couple years back they immediately devalued the currency.

Well, one of the types of businesses they seek to buy are in the information/entertainment field. Information is tightly controlled in China, there’s no facebook, ebay or amazon. If a Chinese firm buys a theater chain or a production company, you can be sure no film depicting China in a negative light will ever be shown. Not long ago I read that China produces about 60 films a year centered on WWII that depict Japanese as evil. Certainly no contemporary or controversial subjects are ever covered.

Even if the Chinese company is privately held, they will do exactly what the party tells them in that regard because it is all powerful. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that every Chinese branded computer sold around the world has a back door that can be hacked by Chinese authorities. The same is true for cars made in China. It would be very easy for China, in a conflict situation with the US, to have all Chinese made cars stop in their tracks or veer wildly off course at a signal from Beijing. I know it sounds like a wacky conspiracy theory.. but…

Capitalism is different, at least how it’s practiced in the US, because in America profits take precedence over any loyalty to country. The way it works in the US, any corporation that tried to act in the interest of workers, society, the environment that impacted on profits, would likely be sued by its stockholders. And they’re all too happy to manufacture in China because of the enforced docility of its workers: no unions or strikes allowed. It matters not to American capitalists that the monster they’ve created may eventually devour them, short-term  profits is the only consideration.

China exploits its workers even more than western capitalists. The immense wealth they’ve accumulated has come at the expense of their environment and workers. A few years back Beijing demanded that the US embassy there stop reporting pm 2.5 pollution levels: pm 2.5 refers to particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns. It’s a very dangerous pollutant and Beijing’s air was 10 or 20 times acceptable levels according to the World Health Organization. The US refused, saying their embassy was sovereign territory and they wanted their employees to know what kind of air they were breathing. Similar situations happen in America where the use of toxic chemicals is hidden from the public, except it generally isn’t a crime to research and report on those things.

They also mercilessly exploit their workers. Chinese have the right to live anywhere, but the only place they can send their kids to school or enjoy any other social benefits is where they were born. Since there are few jobs in the countryside, they’re forced to leave their children with relatives and migrate to the cities to work. They often live in migrant enclaves and are looked down upon and discriminated against. The cities like it that way since they get workers for their factories, but don’t have the expense of educating their children.

The upshot of China becoming wealthy is that they’re throwing their weight around and buying friendship, or shall we say, greasing the wheels of friendship. China currently has ongoing territorial conflicts with eight of its neighbors. The most prominent dispute involves the South China Sea: they are claiming waters practically within sight of other countries that are as much as 1000 miles from their territory. One of the countries bordering the South China Sea is the Philippines. That country’s previous president took the dispute to the International Court of Justice, which ruled against the Chinese claim, saying it had no validity whatever. China, needless to say, totally ignored the ruling and continued construction on disputed islands. The Philippines’ current president decided China was too big to fight and maybe if they didn’t press their claim, they could beg some money out of the big bully.

Cambodia is the perfect example of benefiting financially from political backing. Asean is a case in point. No motion critical of China will come out of that body because Cambodia will deny the necessary consensus for passing it. In exchange, China’s investments in Cambodia are the largest of any nation. They also make lots of donations like city buses and military equipment and have provided $2b of infrastructure loans. It isn’t all China, however: when the PM wanted to borrow $800m dollars to build a light rail line to the airport he went to Japan for the loan.

Other countries have found Chinese investment to be a mixed blessing. Sri Lanka in particular is regretting China’s help. There’s a $2b Chinese funded airport that stands empty that the country can’t make the loan payments on. There’s an $8b port that’s going broke because the country’s plans were too grandiose. China offered to forgive the debt on the port in exchange for a 99 year lease on it and about 10,000 hectares of land surrounding it to use for an industrial park. The deal isn’t sitting well with the people.

What China doesn’t do is buy Cambodia’s exports. The US buys 22%, Europe 40%, China 4%.  The PM has been on an anti-American vendetta lately. Some of his angry rhetoric against the US goes back to Nixon’s secret bombing campaign and America’s support for Pol Pot in the UN long after he was driven from power (but let’s not mention that China also backed Pol Pot in the UN). I believe his complaints are justified, except that’s 20, 30, 40 years ago and not really relevant for today. Lately it’s been because US funded media outlets VOA and Radio Free Asia often broadcast news unfavorable to the ruling party. Holding the powerful to account is one of the primary functions of a free press, so of course it’s often going to come up negative in a place where corruption and impunity are so widespread.

Anti-American anti-western tirades could well backfire. If the US and EU stopped buying Cambo exports because of the country’s backsliding on democratic values and half a million garment workers were out of work as a result, there’d certainly be grave anger and unrest to deal with. The West will probably not do that for concern of driving Cambodia even closer to China.

And further, a recent study showed the Cambodian people have a more favorable opinion of America than China. Embracing China at the expense of the west is a dangerous path though at this point the people’s opinions aren’t going to account for much since it currently seems like there’ll be no opposition party to contest the next election. With Rainsy exiled and Sokha facing 30 years in prison on treason charges no other opposition figure will step up to lead the party, it’d be like a death wish. At this point it seems like he’s determined to remain in power no matter what. He can eliminate the opposition party, but not opposition. Nowadays a majority of Cambodians get their news from social media and it would be very difficult to put that cat back in the box now that they have gotten used to the internet.

There might well be dark times ahead and the big question for us Cambo expats is whether turmoil or unrest will affect our lives. Finally, let me say 2500 words is nowhere near enough to cover this topic, but it’ll have to do for now.

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development

Wishful Thinking – Cambo Style

A government minister recently announced that a light rail train service would be running to the airport by next April. This impressed me as a lot like raising the flag for an idea and seeing if anybody salutes, except it’ll take a lot more than raising hands to construct a viable, functional rail line. The whole idea is ridden with breathlessly phantasmagorical absurdity. It’s not that a light rail line wouldn’t be a great idea and considering today’s traffic, a necessity for a smoothly functioning city, but to use the current single track now used by freight and long haul passengers, and build a new 1.5 kilometer track to connect to the airport and to do it all in 8 months… wow I’d sure be impressed. And if it actually did come together it’d be the cheesiest light rail line in existence.

In the first place, the track is extremely slow, it takes practically an hour for the long haul passenger train go the last 10 kilometers; part of the reason is that in one section people have set up market stalls on both sides of the track within inches of the trains going by. With 2 or 3 intermediate stops, it would take more than an hour to go the 9 kilometers from the PP train station to the airport, and that’s if there were no conflicts with the freight and long haul passenger trains. A single track means lots of waiting on sidings for trains to pass in the opposite direction. I’ll concede that it’d be better than nothing, though not by a whole lot. At least the government would be thinking about rail alternatives to deal with traffic.

A week after that announcement, the whole idea got upgraded to asking Japan for $800 million to build a skytrain. The airport is so close that a train running at 80 kph wouldn’t take ten minutes even with intermediate stops. Japan has given Cambodia $4.2 billion since 1992, so $800m in one shot doesn’t seem very likely.

A far more realistic solution that’d probably cost five or ten times less would be to double track the existing line and upgrade it for higher speeds. As I remember there’s plenty of room for another track along most of that stretch. It wouldn’t be able to go as fast but even if it only went at 50 kph it’d still get you to the airport in 15 minutes. It’s never preferable to mix local light rail trains with long haul trains, but it’d work fine in the interim and cut nearly an hour off of long haul timetables – Kampot to Phnom Penh in four hours rather than five. It could also be implemented in much less time than the skytrain. I’d guess 1½ to 2 years against 3 to 4 years to build a skytrain. Also asking Japan for $150 million or so is a lot more realistic.

As of August 15 the story has changed again. Japan has agreed to loan Cambodia the money, with long payback terms and low interest rates. Their experts will begin studying two or three possible routes. The same article in the Daily said that the Transportation Ministry was going to simultaneously develop the ground based train. Really? Spend millions on a ground based system that’ll be obsolete a year or two after it’s finished? I guess we’ll see… and maybe I’ll have to revise this story again before my deadline.

In other transportation news China has donated 100 used buses to enable new lines to be added to the three currently in operation. When the announcement was made the word was that the new lines would be operational within 6 weeks. Then a short time later, the ministry decided they probably should do a little planning first. Over the years several proposals for new lines have been made – I’ve see a couple different maps – but that’s not the same as actually making it happen. Once they settle on a route, they have to get out and decide where the stops need to go, then they need to design maps and finally build the stops: that doesn’t happen in six weeks. Once lines are set up, it’s expensive and difficult to change them, so it needs to be done right the first time. At least it’s finally getting done.

Back in 2000 Japan financed a pilot bus system, but at the end of the six month trial, the city wasn’t interested in providing the funds necessary to keep it going. Big bus systems always need subsidies. As I understand it, the current 3 line system requires a $1m per year subsidy. Sounds like a lot, but that’s less than the cost of 5 luxury SUVs of the kind that hundreds or thousands of public officials drive around.

The government is also expecting Japan to donate 180 buses. The timetable now for implementation is early next year with a total of ten lines running. Public transportation is essential for a big city. No matter how small motorbikes are, they still take up more street space than the equivalent number of people riding a full bus. They are safe; how many people are hurt riding city buses? They’re more comfortable with air-con and shelter from inclement weather. It’s also healthier not being in the traffic on a moto breathing exhaust. Public buses are a boon to low income people, as Phnom Penh’s buses allow riders to go long distances for 1500 riel – about 37 cents – giving them many more job and life possibilities. We expats look at the dollar or two it costs us to pay for moto transportation all the way across town as a pittance, but it’s a heavy burden to the many locals who earn $100 or $200 dollars a month. Yes they’re much slower, so motodops and tuk-tuk drivers will still have their customers, but a lot of people will take the bus when the system is more complete.

I’ve often wondered why a minibus system was never set up in Phnom Penh similar to the Philippines where jeepneys operate in big cities like Manila as well as the countryside. Manila has big buses and a train system as well as the minibuses. Minibuses cover the countryside here so it’s curious that they were never used in the capital. No matter, a real transit system is coming.

Speaking of wishful thinking a couple little tidbits in the August 3 edition of the Daily caught my eye. In one, two companies, one each from Malaysia and Cambodia announced they were going to build a $5 billion, 522 kilometer expressway from Phnom Penh to the Lao border and start construction by the end of the year. Bwahahahaha. Not only is $5b a shitload of money, but that area is very sparsely populated and one of the least likely places in the country to justify the expense in building an expressway. The transport ministry didn’t know anything about it and when the Daily checked it out, one of the two companies, the Malaysian one, had a one page website that made no mention of the project and they were unable to make contact with the other. Another pure fantasy.

The other tidbit was an announcement that a task force of local and national officials was being set up with the charge of solving the capital’s flooding problems. A Water Resources Ministry spokesperson was quoted saying the committee would take the results of the task force and stop the flooding…Bwahahahaha. Just about every person in Cambodia who doesn’t have a personal financial stake in filling in wetlands and lakes knows exactly what the problem is and what to do to begin fixing the problem: Stop It! Just Stop It!

Well okay, I’ll grant you that some people who are filling the city’s natural drainage areas with concrete actually believe what they’re doing is good for the city… after all a while back one of the city’s elite businessmen actually proposed developing the Olympic Stadium grounds with malls, condos and such saying the land was too valuable to be used only for recreation. And that’s the only substantial public space outside the riverside area in the whole city of 2 million people. The rich, as everywhere, are oblivious to the needs of commoners. They have their urban villas and country estates so they feel no loss when public parks or lakes are turned into concrete.

In other transportation news, the government has announced a plan to clear the city’s sidewalks for pedestrians, starting with major thoroughfares, which is long overdue as far as I’m concerned. It’s uncouth, uncivilized and dangerous to force people to walk in the street amongst cars and motos whizzing by.

It wasn’t that long ago (okay 7 or 8 years maybe) that a public official decided that the city was going to eliminate all the sidewalks since Cambodians didn’t like to walk anyway. On the contrary, plenty of Penhers like to walk, look at the thousands who saunter around the riverside every afternoon, it’s just that it’s now so uncomfortable and unpleasant that few have the incentive. A Khmer friend who visited Europe related how she greatly enjoyed walking there and was excited to return and walk in the capital but realized very quickly walking in PP was pure hassle and not worth it.

In fact, before the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge, encumbrance of the sidewalks was strictly forbidden. Since blocking sidewalks was a long tradition in Vietnam I assume it was during the time of their occupation that usurping public sidewalks for private use became common.

When I’m in the capital I do almost everything by walking because I have a fierce dislike of motorbikes and can’t imagine riding a bicycle there. Of course it’s terribly frustrating and frightening to be a lowly pedestrian dodging traffic, and very uncomfortable in many places because the sidewalks are so inconsistent. They go up and down – sometimes one will be 30 centimeters higher than the adjacent one – and sometimes are at a steep slant. If the city wants them to be used they need to establish standards so they all are built to the same level, with minimal slant. They should be angled only enough for rain to shed off. But at least it’s a start.

It might not be easy; more than once I’ve read that Bogota, capital of Columbia was having a terrible time getting the sidewalks cleared. When you consider it’s 3 times Phnom Penh’s size and Columbia has more than 3 times Cambodia’s population, it could be a challenge.

In Kampot I ride bicycle in the daytime and car at night. I would ride the bike at night at times if not for the dogs of midnight who terrorize anybody who comes near; they even bark at my car sometimes. The PM remarked recently in reference to the city’s heavy traffic that he didn’t want to restrict people from having cars, they’re starting to be middle class and want their autos. I agree, except he should also be looking at the developed world where the greater emphasis is on bicycles and walking. Everybody having cars is an interim phase. Rich countries encourage and facilitate bike use because they’re clean, quiet, healthy and take up little street space. Once the sidewalks are cleared, there’ll be many places where safe bikepaths would be possible.

Finally a few notes on Kampot. First, in the wishful thinking department a private firm has announced a $23 billion development on the coast. That’s more than the value of all the property in the city, maybe several times the value. Another figment of someone’s outsized imagination and a disaster if it ever really happened.

Also I have to mention the new international passenger port being constructed 9 kilometers south of town with $18m in Asia Development Bank funds. It’ll be designed to take people to Phu Quok and destinations in Cambodia like Sihanoukville, Koh Rong, Koh Kong. It’d be kinda nice to be able to go those places on the water, but they are confidently expecting an average 1000 people a day to use it in the first year, which seems quite outlandish to me. In the first place water travel tends to be expensive; the relatively short boat trip between S-ville and Koh Rong costs ten dollars. The first time I traveled between Koh Kong and S-ville in 2002 I took a boat as there was no road alternative: it was expensive and took a long time.

I’ve been wrong before, so maybe my pessimism is way off and thousands of people a day will be using it. I hope that doesn’t come to pass since who really needs all those extra people coming through? We already have lots of ‘refugees’ from S-ville settling here as well as a steady stream of people from all over the world seeking haven from the madding crowds. There’s an old saying that sums up the conundrum… If you find the perfect place, don’t stay because it won’t be perfect anymore. It happens all the time, as soon as a place is discovered it’s on the way to destruction. On the other hand, Kampot’s still a cool and pleasant place to be and the influx hasn’t yet changed it’s essential nature, but is there a tipping point?

I’m stuck almost whatever happens. I’ve been in the same rental house for 10 years and I’ve turned my little plot of land into an Eden, buying plants every month to add to my garden.

On another topic, a couple months ago the riverside strip suddenly was free of parked cars, well almost free, there were still a few scofflaws. I checked for signs, but saw none. The police somehow got the word out and almost everybody obeyed, even assuming that some of the cars didn’t have local owners. But just to be sure no good deed goes unpunished, the authorities have compensated for the improvement of the experience by erecting large –1.5 by 2 meter –lighted advertising signs every 30 or so meters all along the 3 kilometer riverside park. Tacky, ugly, trashy, tasteless and vulgar. Now in the old town section of the riverside park there are the garishly lit restaurant boats on one side and intrusive telecom ads on the other. Since the park, actually a promenade, is not very wide, it’s like you’re being bombarded with ugly.

In a final note: kampotradio.com is up and running with local presenters several hours a day, including yours truly between 7 and 8 pm Monday through Thursday playing those good old tunes.

 

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Kampot, Cambodia

Safe and Sound

A while back a guy at the bar came out squarely against the concept of ‘better safe than sorry’. He wanted experience, excitement, adventure, but I don’t think that’s what that adage really means. In no way does it preclude an active, interesting life. It’s more like when you go rock climbing or mountaineering, for instance, you know what you’re getting into and come prepared for survival, for difficulties. You can’t cover every exigency but you study your turf and understand the possible challenges.

I’m the type of person who’s always almost painfully aware of rules of safety and the dangers around us. That doesn’t mean I always follow the better safe concept. For instance, I rarely wear seat belts, though the importance of doing that was impressed upon me long ago.

I met a woman while riding Amtrak across the US who had recently spent 2 months in the hospital from a serious road accident. She was coming home after a short highway trip. She stopped a few miles from her turnoff to pick something up. When she got back in the car she figured it was such a short distance it wasn’t important to wear her seat belt, though previously she had always been religious about hooking it up and…  Kaboom.

A good part of the reason why we live in Cambodia is the lackadaisical way rules are enforced here. Back in the western world everything is regimented and ordered: There are big consequences for getting caught trying to get around the rules, like in Oregon a hefty fine of about $100 for not wearing a seat belt or having a child in a car seat. Still, even if I don’t follow them, I can see the benefits. Yes, it’s illegal to smoke in the bars, but as long as nobody complains, why make a big deal of it? If anybody’s getting hurt, which in fact they are from second hand smoke, it’s their choice to be there. The ban is good even if it isn’t enforced because it constantly reminds smokers of the danger of what they’re doing to themselves and others.

We may avoid doing the safe thing if it’s a lot of hassle or costs very much, especially if we think the odds are remote. But regardless of low probability we could be making decisions that can severely impact others. Maybe we are lazy, disinterested or sometimes unaware. If our actions or inactions lead to someone getting seriously injured… well that’s a karma nobody wants to take on.

Some years ago I was in a popular expat bar in Phnom Penh, hanging out, talking when I leaned back, I should say rocked back, in one of those cheap wicker bar stools (you know, one of the really uncomfortable kind) when I lost control; it tipped over backward and speedily sent me hurtling towards the concrete floor. In a flash of time – it probably took less than a second to go all the way down – I decided to turn my head rather than have the back of it hit the floor first and instead bounced off of the concrete with my nose. It was broken and it hurt for more than a week.

Looking at the stool closely, it was clearly unstable with the legs all tilted backwards, enough so it didn’t take very much to go over. Not long later I was back at the bar and a friend tried to sit on it and, without any prompting from me, said, This stool is really unstable. It was an accident waiting to happen. Right after the event I wanted to take the stool outside and destroy it so it couldn’t hurt anyone else. Instead the owner just moved it aside temporarily and later it found its way back to the bar. It’s not hard to imagine someone else getting a serious concussion or cracked skull or even dying from a fall like that. Did he really want to be responsible for a serious injury over a cheap lousy $25 bar stool? Yes, I was drinking and a bit unstable myself, but drinking is what you do in a bar, so bar owners need to be aware of the risks involved and be doubly sure not to keep dangerous things around.

In this case there was a silver lining. My nose had been pointing left from a previous break. That latest break had it pointing in the right direction. It isn’t straight, mind you, but a least it’s pointing straight ahead.

More recently, a few years back there was an outdoor bar-restaurant here in Kampot, that was at times, very successful. The problem there was that the pathway to the toilet was very rough, with lots of places to stub a toe. In my case that meant diving head first into a concrete wall. Ouch, that sure hurt. It also drew lots of blood and evil looking scrapes. Fortunately I have a very hard head, so the damage was strictly on the surface, except for a raging headache. Yeah sure, I had drunk my quota and wasn’t entirely focused on where my feet were going, but again, drinking is what you do in a bar and many people get sloppy while drinking. And further, no matter how loopy I might’ve been, I would’ve never crashed if the pathway was a smooth surface. Yes, I’d made it to that pisser many times previously, but still, it was an accident waiting to happen.

In the first case the danger was very clear and easy to remediate, just get rid of the damn stool, the latter case was not so clear cut since it would’ve taken time and effort to make that path right so it’s understandable why the owner might not see the safety improvement as critical and even if he did, try to avoid correcting it since that was going to be a hassle. All I can say is, Be aware, you don’t want your negligence or indifference to be the cause of someone’s injury.

Dangerous plants. Another of my pet kvetches is nasty plants, or say plants that are very unfriendly if you get too close. The most iffy one you see around a lot is a member of the euphorbia family with the popular name of crown of thorns. It’s not a plant you want to have situated where people are moving close by, because if you get too close, or drunkenly fall into one, you’ll feel like a pincushion. It’s stems are covered with very sharp 2 cm long thorns. They are very popular in Kampot, you see them everywhere because they have two saving attributes: They are always in flower and they are practically indestructible; leave it without water for months and it’ll be stressed, but still alive and holding on.

One of the nicest plants around is bougainvillea. Mature plants can cover a whole building with beautiful flowers. The city of Kampot likes it so much they encourage property owners to plant lots of them. But, like the crown of thorns, it’s not one you want to get too close to since it also is covered with sharp thorns, though they’re not as treacherous as the euphorbia’s. I’ve seen them in places where you had to duck to avoid them… they need to be kept trimmed.

Defensive driving. It’s one of those musts for avoiding damage to oneself and others. I was driving my car in Phnom Penh some years ago when a car pulled in front of me, actually I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I was somehow offended and felt aggressive so I drove very close behind – I’ll show him –  and made a quick stop when he did… which caused a moto driver to almost hit me from behind. Now did I really want someone else to pay for my bad attitude? It wasn’t the first time I let my ego cause danger to others.

Meanwhile the little kiddies, some as young as six, are out in full force roaming the streets of Kampot in their little motorbikes weaving around traffic like pros, cutting you off and forcing quick stops and just generally treating driving around town as if it was a carnival ride.

I was going through a narrow spot with room enough for only my Tico and there’s a ten-year-old driving right at me forcing me to brake, he then does a deft fancy maneuver around me. In the first place, cars have the right-of-way over motorbikes in Cambodia, he should’ve let me pass. He can’t have had much experience at his age, yet he acts like he owns the road. Well, one time he’ll be a little too challenging, be a little too sure of himself, get a little too close and the other person might not have the time to respond before that young child becomes toast.

Kids should be on bicycles, it’s much healthier. Everybody should for short trips, it’s not only healthier but it’s quieter and doesn’t use fossil fuels or create pollution. Sure you can also get hurt on a bicycle, but they don’t go very fast and generally are less dangerous.

Rule by the rich. Last fall in the middle of a full remodel Madi bar was shut down by the owner of the building who bought out the lease. Madi had been an institution for at least 5 years with live music every Thursday drawing crowds. It was a fun, relaxed place and since it was owned by a Cambodian, it drew a mixed crew. It was a perfect place for music: few people lived on the block so there were few people to complain about it being loud. Even now, a year later most of the block is curiously vacant. But for the rich guy it was too funky. No matter how cool they may look, or friendly they may act, they like their upscaleness. They want a clean, trendy middle class look.  He couldn’t even deal with beautiful mature Areca palms, codeiums and other very large venerable plants that nearly formed a green canopy over the entrance: it was too messy, all had to go.

I sorely miss the bar. It was great to have a place to dance in old town, now the only dance venues are outside of town on the river. The worst was seeing that greenery go, it was sad, dispiriting and as far as I’m concerned, totally unnecessary.

Part of Kampot’s cache, its allure is in its funkiness. To me lack of perfection is perfection. While I can appreciate hip, beautiful, trendy design, I much prefer the realism of laidbackness, you know, the essence of Cambodia, the reason why we live here. Do we really want the middle class look to take over our town?

So I recently see him in a bar in another building he owns, enjoying the scene while, rumor has it, he’s plotting the bar’s removal and upgrading for a better clientele. Good vibes are evidently not enough. It’s also an institution and has been around for six years. In that case the owner of the bar won’t have a problem finding a new place. It probably won’t have the benefit of being on the riverside as his present place is, but his customers will certainly follow him wherever he goes. Not same for the former Madi bar’s owner since it’s very difficult to site a live music bar in old town, he’s been trying to no avail. Money rules.

I know I’ve beat the dead horse of lousy bar design repeatedly, but reasons to comment keep on battering me. Kampot has a new roof top bar: nice spot, good vibes, well attended, atrociously designed bar. It has no overhang, standard issue bar stools with the upper cross member too high for comfort – your knees are up around your chin (exaggerating slightly) – and the lower one unreachable unless you’re very tall. And there’s no rail or foot rest to compensate so your legs (my legs) start to go numb after a beer or two of hanging with no place to put them, after that I get antsy and want to move on. I may suffer and put up with it if I’m having a good time, but my back and legs will be complaining big time. If you’re young you can deal with being uncomfortable for a long time, but I no longer have that gift.

Another element of poor design is bars that are too tall which nonetheless have standard size stools. There are two recently built venues with that problem. Being relatively short, I feel like a little kid who can barely see over the bar top… again exaggerating… but still. If you’re building a bar, it’s design shouldn’t come off the top of your head, it should be based on real criteria and logic.

Finally, a word about crappers. I was at a friend’s new bar-restaurant, took a piss and tried to flush the toilet; didn’t work though it was only a month old. Three points to make on this. One; I assume almost all toilets sold in Cambodia are made in China, which doesn’t always mean poor quality, but often does. Still, to crap out after only one month? Most of course will work for quite a while before they start giving you shit. If you install one in your house and flush it maybe ten times a day, it could work fine for years, but if it’s in a bar and gets used 10 times an hour it won’t be long before it gives you hassles and headaches. Two; in Cambodia, with rare exceptions, men are going to make up 60% to 90% of a bar’s customer base. Three; if you also install a urinal, which needs far less maintenance, your flusher will work a lot longer before it starts giving you shit. It’s obviously best to have the urinal in its own space, but even if you don’t have the room and have to place it in the same room as the toilet, you’re still going to be far better off.

 

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Elections 2017 – Cambodia, UK, France

On June 4 Cambodia held a general election for commune leaders and councilors. Cambodia holds elections on two levels only, communes and the national legislature, which will take place next year. Everything in between; province and city leaders are all appointed by the ruling party.

The entire country is divided into 1646 communes, both urban and rural. In America we’d call them neighborhoods except here they have a lot more responsibility. That’s where people go to get ID cards and official papers stamped, for instance, so they do have an impact on people close to home. However, they don’t have a lot of power and over the commune leader’s head is a representative of the ruling party. They also don’t have much in the way of funding, being dependent on the central government for any public project.

In the election just passed the ruling CPP Cambodian People’s Party won 1158 communes, the opposition CNRP Cambodian National Rescue Party won 487. One commune was captured by a minor party. This was a loss for the ruling party from the last commune election when they won all but about 30 communes.

The actual vote in Cambodia was much closer with the CPP getting 51% and the CNRP getting 44%, the rest going to minor parties. The opposition does better in Phnom Penh where communes have more people than in rural areas. Those vote totals aren’t much different than the last general election in 2013, still it marks a real challenge to the ruling party’s control. Also some of the contests ran on local issues so might not reflect exactly on the people’s mood as a whole.

Several points stand out, the most remarkable being an astounding turnout of 86%. This is all the more exceptional considering that registration closed last October and many people had to return to their home towns to vote. And since the government created a new voter list for this election, everybody had to register anew. It was also the first time people were allowed to vote where they work, but not everybody was able to change their place of registration.

In contrast Oregon has one of the best turnouts in America. They make it very easy to vote. All voting is by mail, there’s no waiting in line to vote. You can register the day of the election. Every time you go to the Dept of Motor Vehicles they ask you if you want to register. With all that they still can’t beat Cambodia at 86%. The Cambodian people are committed to and passionate about the democratic system.

With some few exceptions the election was considered free and fair, for Cambodia a real achievement. However, while the election itself went off smoothly and peacefully, election observers consider the election to be tainted by pre-election media control and threats of violence on the part of the CPP. The PM went off into his usual threats of civil war and chaos if he doesn’t get reelected. Some of it is pure politics, the scare factor. Teresa May’s approach in the UKs election was similar… You must stay with us for stability and strength or else you’ll get a dangerous man like Jeremy Corbyn.

Some of it you have to take at face value. He has threatened to ‘eliminate’ 100 or 200 people if they try to run a revolution on him. His Defense Minister threatened to ‘smash the teeth’ of anybody who doesn’t accept the result in next year’s general election.

Okay, I got that, but what if he actually loses in a free and fair election? He and his crew actually believe that mayhem will follow the loss of the CPP. After 30 years in power would he graciously accept defeat?

He wants the legitimacy of elections and risks economic chaos if he stages a coup against a duly elected government. At least for a while, there would be sanctions, international pressure and general opprobrium. He’d wreck the very stability he runs on. The CPP has greatly increased prosperity over their long reign and people see great improvement in infrastructure and other facets of government, but displacement, land-grabbing, and widespread impunity and corruption are rankling to the masses.

Sometimes no matter how good a political situation might be, after 30 years people get tired and want to try something new. Also there are storm clouds on the economic horizon. Overbuilding of structures tailored for the upper classes in the capital will cause a general crash in property values, at least in the short term. Cambodians are heavily indebted to microfinance institutions, some 88% of rural Cambodians have borrowed from them. With interest rates so high many can only afford to pay interest and never pay the loans off. Any economic slowdown would cause many to default. I also think dependency on loans from China for many projects puts the country in a tenuous position.

The opposition on the other hand stuck to the issues, corruption, decentralization, money for communes. They have to be nice, otherwise the courts will come after them with a vengeance. But what about the people? There were some for sure who heard the CPPs message and felt pressured to vote for ‘stability’, but clearly most people said, meh, I’ll vote for who I want. A lot of people, in this case 44%, weren’t going to be cowed no matter how serious the threat. When popular activist Kem Lay was gunned down last year in suspicious circumstances mourners were told there could be no march. People defied the authorities and 200,000 showed up. They take their rights seriously.

The big election next year will be the test of how far democracy is allowed to go. Jailing and harassment of the opposition might achieve its goals in the short run but will only strengthen the people’s resolve and resentment of the ruling party’s ham-handed tendencies. It’ll be fascinating to watch.

Meanwhile, elections in the UK have created a miasmic morass of uncertainty and confusion. First there was PM David Cameron pandering to his right wing by holding a referendum on the UK leaving or remaining in the EU. It was a vote he was sure was going to be for staying, but instead went for Brexit. Personally, I think it’s dangerous to base such a momentous decision on a single plebiscite: it should’ve required two votes, especially since the vote was close, 52-48.

A lot of people on all sides of the political spectrum are angry at the status quo. Neoliberal policies born in the Thatcher/Reagan era have transferred wealth and power from the 99% to the 1%. The last time inequality was as extreme in the US was in 1929 and we all know how that turned out.

The same goes for the UK. Cosmopolitans and youth in the cities, as well as Scotland and N Ireland voted to stay. It was small town and rural voters who carried the referendum, people nostalgic for a long past past.

Teresa May who took over as Conservative PM when Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote saw an opportunity a couple months back when polls showed her riding high and called for a special election. She had said she wouldn’t call an election ahead of the one scheduled in the regular sequence of things, but couldn’t resist when polls showed her gaining 100 seats in Parliament.

Jeremy Corbyn her opponent was widely derided in the press and by his own Labour MPs who, being staunchly centrist and pro-business, wanted nothing to do with his leftist populist message. However rank and file Labour party members voted for him as leader by an overwhelming majority: this was seen by the establishment as a death knell for the party’s chances in the next election.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the vote. The more people saw of May, the less they liked her, for Corbyn the exact opposite happened. Instead of a blowout in favor of the Tories, they lost seats and their parliamentary majority. It was a disaster for the party and a big dose of uncertainty going forward for the nation. The electorate was much less divided this time compared to the last election and both major parties gained a lot of votes. Conservatives went from 37% to 44%, Labour went from 30% to 41%.

As in the Brexit vote, young voters were extremely one side in their preference for Labour. All May could offer was her ‘Strong’ leadership along with austerity, hardship and feed-the-rich tax policies, whereas Corbyn talked about free college tuition, taxing the wealthy, nationalization of the railways and more national holidays. As to the last, the UK has only 5 national holidays, less than any other EU country. More time off to enjoy life was his message… imagine that.

Free tuition was also one of Bernie Sanders’ campaign planks. As in the US his opponents talked about that as if it were some impossible pie-in-the-sky populism, so lets look at that more closely.

I don’t know the details regarding the UK, so I’ll stick to US as an example. Bernie’s free tuition proposal for all public higher education would cost $69 billion per year based on the current number of students. American corporations have more than 2 trillion dollars stashed overseas to avoid paying taxes on it. If they were good corporate citizens (bwahahahaha, have you ever heard such a thing?) brought the money back and paid the 35% corporate income tax rate, that would amount to about $700 billion or enough to pay for the program for 10 years. Wealthy Americans have $20 trillion dollars in assets, if you tax that wealth at 1% you’d raise almost 3 times as much as the annual cost of the program. Just the 10 richest Americans could pay for the program for 5 years and each still have tens of billions to play with.

The program would actually cost more since a lot more people would be able to afford an education, but it would still be a pittance compared to the excessive wealth strewn about in the elite. And really, is it better for society to have the superwealthy wallow in their riches or educate everyone who wants? Cost is not the problem, our priorities are.

Corbyn represented a clash with the establishment and spoke to simple truths. He’s the real thing and youth especially knew it and responded.

Meanwhile May having lost her parliamentary majority has got a hell of a problem on her hands. She gets first crack at forming a new government, but she needs the help of a smaller party. Unfortunately, the only potential partner is a far right party in N. Ireland, but it’s not a good match. She may not be able to form a stable government, which job would then fall to Corbyn.

The other great point of confusion brought about by her loss is the beginning of Brexit negotiations. She campaigned on the idea of a hard Brexit, a complete break with the EU, but many Brits, maybe a majority would prefer a soft Brexit. If they had the option to vote again they might even decide to stay.

I think the Brexit vote will ultimately turn out for the best. The UK has always tried to stymie European cooperation and integration and frequently tried to exempt itself from EU wide policies. Brexit will be a grand experiment. It’s all in flux now, but if the exit goes through, I predict within 5 or 10 years they’ll be asking to join again. With more humility and respect for the whole project the next time.

Finally, France has a new president. Emmanuel Macron came from nowhere one year ago with a new party to sweep the presidential field and elect a majority in parliament. Once again the old-guard centrist parties were vanquished in favor of a totally new voice. In this case he’s decidedly centrist, but with a youthful twist. Not only that Macron himself, at 39, is the youngest French president in modern times, but the youth vote carried him to victory. And even in his very short time in office he’s shown himself to be a strong forceful leader.

His major goal is the reform of labor laws that discourage hiring and firing. In past attempts unions came out in force to thwart that goal but with a new mandate and control of government there’s nothing to stop change now. I have great sympathy for the working class but in this case it protects people who are already working while discriminating against those who aren’t. It also protects underperformers while leaving the young out in the dust. The only mitigating factor in today’s cutthroat world would be a generous safety net to cushion job losses and insecurity.

It is heartening that in all three contests mentioned it was the youth who were forward looking and progressive, the voice and direction of the future, giving hope that politics can change.

As a final note I’d like to bring up a voting system variously called preference, ranked choice or instant runoff, a system currently used in Ireland and Australia. France just held 4 votes in one month. Both the presidential and legislative elections required runoffs for contests in which no candidate achieved a majority. By the fourth vote, voter fatigue pushed turnout down to 40%.

Instant runoff guarantees a majority on the first ballot. The voter chooses candidates by ranking their preference, first, second, third. If there’s no majority winner, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their second choice votes are divided up among the remaining candidates. This happens until a candidate gets a majority. For instance, if I were voting in the UK under that system, I’d always vote Green first. It doesn’t matter that I know the Green candidate has no chance of winning because my second choice would be Labour. If the Conservative (or another party candidate) won a majority in the first round, then it didn’t matter who I voted for. If another party didn’t win there’s still a chance my second choice might win.

Instant runoff eliminates the spoiler role minor party candidates play in electing the voter’s worst choice, like the way that votes for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000 helped elect GW Bush. There are lots of reasons why Gore lost the presidency, but the Green party vote for Nader was undoubtedly one of them. With preference voting the Dems and Greens would work together instead of slamming each other.

 

 

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