Cambodia Politics and Development

Birthdays Party and Kampot Double Bubble.



Last August 22 was my 75th birthday. Now that’s a very big round number and quite an accomplishment, if I must say so, and called for an appropriate celebration. As it happens, it was also Helen’s 22nd birthday, so why not combine the two? Where else but Cambodia, or say Kampot, could two people of vastly different ages hold a joint birthday party? In fact, we share some of the same friends and it worked out fine. I would’ve been a bit concerned about turnout if I were holding it by myself, but doing it together made it a great success.

Part of the magic of living in the Cambo/Kampot expat bubble is we get to be ourselves. We’re not confined or categorized by attitudes found back in our home countries. We’re already a diverse amalgam of people from around the world and age makes much less difference in such a milieu. I only realize how old I am when I see a picture of myself in a younger crowd. Amongst a diverse group, I don’t feel any different from those around me. Everyone my age might not react the same, but whether it’s good karma or good choices (really, the two are inseparable) I still feel young (relatively) and energetic, even if my stamina doesn’t hold up as well as it used to.

A few years back while visiting the states, old friends said I never looked so good. If so, more than a decade in Cambodia had to be part of the reason for that – it’s now nearly 15 years since I first came to here to live. Having a pension, albeit paltry, also has something to do with it since I don’t face the stress of working and making a living. While hard work and accomplishment are essential to health for a young person, the harder you push when you’re my age, the younger you die.

Part of being healthy comes from living in Cambodia with its low cost and open and friendly atmosphere that provides the background to the community we’ve formed. However, we’re in a special place, an almost insular community where we spend most of our time with each other rather than relating to the larger Khmer population. Sometimes I hear people lament that disconnect. I also feel it at times, but I’m so grateful for what we’ve created I don’t consider it a great deficiency. It’s not difficult to be part of the local culture with local friends if you’ve a mind to it, but you can also be quite separate, relating only to fellow expats and the locals we deal with on a daily basis in stores, restaurants, etc.

Cambodia lets us be ourselves and because there are no restrictions on who can live here; that is, there is no income requirement or onerous paperwork to fill out: we only need to pay the $300 per year to keep our visas current. Because of that openness we also get diversity in incomes; it’s possible to come here with very little money and get by on doing bar work for ten dollars per shift plus tips. Some of those people may have a little stash, but they still work to prolong their stays as well as be out relating and talking and usually having fun.

Every other country in the region and almost everywhere else in the world requires a lot more effort and hassle and sometimes a substantial income to maintain residency. The Philippines a while back announced it was going to simplify and make retirement visas easier to get to attract more geezers. In addition to the paperwork requirements, you ‘only’ needed to have $25,000 in the bank and a certain regular income, meaning I couldn’t possibly qualify. The country is very poor; in many ways an economic basket case which has forced 10% of its population to go overseas to work. It’s overcrowded stemming from the overbearing influence of the Catholic church and the leftovers of Spanish machismo with every man thinking he needs 10 kids to prove his virility. What? You can stick it in, come in one minute, knock her up and that makes you a man? The country has 100 million people, but it’s mostly mountainous and so has minimal arable land relative to that population and has to import a large portion of its food.

In that context how would they lose if they let me live there with my pension of ‘only’ $700 per month? Per capita income in the Philippines is about $3000 per year in US dollars, that’s $250 per month, a bit more than one-third of my pension. I would bring in absolutely free money to bolster the economy, yet it’s not good enough. There’s a fellow here in Kampot who, after living there 30 years, was forced out of the country stemming from visa hassles. The same is true of Thailand: there are lots of people in Cambodia who are refugees from the Thai visa grind.

Contrast that with Kampot here in Cambo. Per capita income in Cambodia is $1160. According to the town’s immigration police there were about 600 expats living in Kampot as of about 9 months ago. That’s roughly 1% of the population and while quite a few are working, the number who are retired, buying land or starting businesses, easily means we make up about 10% of the economy. That is a big reason why Kampot is prospering. While expat presence has boosted the Cambodian economy as a whole, most for sure is concentrated in the major population centers and tourist spots.

That freedom has also brought in loads of big time money. There’s no need to have local partners and no restrictions on repatriating profits. Having the USD which is used in about 85% of all transactions also makes investing more secure and stable. As a result money is pouring in to the country to the effect that Phnom Penh is about to face a crash in condo and commercial development from vast oversupply. If all the condos under construction or for which permits have been obtained come to fruition, supply will increase by more than 1000% in just a couple of years, an impossible scenario considering sales are already falling quite precipitously. Fueling booms is something governments all over the world do with regularity and without the slightest cognizance that booms inevitably result in busts and the aftermath is usually worse for most people. That is certainly true for the many locals working in construction.

An economic downturn would not auger well for the government in the run up to the 2017 commune elections and the 2018 general. While the CPP is besieging the opposition with prosecutions the Cambodia Daily refers to as ‘widely believed to be politically motivated’, it really seems that it’s the CPP itself which feels under threat. When a couple dozen activists started wearing black in their demonstrations against the jailing of NGO Ad Hoc representatives, the authorities have harassed them at every turn. They’re a small group of people with a grievance against the state who wear black t-shirts as a matter of solidarity and yet the authorities consider them a danger. We will not allow a color revolution they say, but really, there’s no possible way Hun Sen will relinquish power except if he abides by an electoral loss and there’s no certainty of that.

He is invincible militarily, nobody could challenge him on that score. But the more the government attempts to quash demonstrations and control the news, the more likely it is that people will vote for the opposition. Control of all broadcast TV stations and almost all radio and newspapers means very little in the age of social media. The government recently displayed a show of force by having 5 helicopters hovering over opposition headquarters while three gunboats were stationed in back of the office which sits on the Bassac river while many vehicles loaded with militarily equipped soldiers drove by in front. The government insisted that it was all a routine exercise, a widely scoffed at notion. There’s no one with political consciousness who wasn’t informed about that incident from social media.

When the opposition planned a small convoy to deliver (what I considered to be meaningless and futile) messages to 13 foreign embassies asking for assistance, the government, in order to try to prevent it, closed down one of the city’s most important thoroughfares leaving many thousands of people to stew in a massive traffic jam. No one believed that shutting down the boulevard was necessary for public order and all knew the genesis of the morass.

Activist Kem Ley’s murder brought out close to 200,000 mourners for the funeral procession, yet the event wasn’t covered in a single TV station. There has not been nor is there likely to be an independent investigation, which only reinforces the public’s belief that the government was behind it. In the midst of all that suppression of news and free speech rights for the general population, we expats live in a bubble with two daily newspapers who are quite courageous at times in their reporting. The PM has expressed dislike and annoyance with them but evidently feels their importance to the expat community outweighs his discomfort. Besides their news doesn’t reach very far into the population as a whole.

After alienating so many people with land grabs and displacement and testing their credulity with statements which few believe, who’s going to be left to vote for the ruling party besides those who work for the government?

One big problem the ruling party has is the Khmer people’s visceral hatred of the Vietnamese. The CPP is on the right side of the argument in that they treat the Viets just like any other people (partly because Vietnam put the PM in power during their occupation after deposing Pol Pot) whereas the opposition CNRP unabashedly appeals to the people’s baser instincts. The animosity goes very deep. When Vietnam booted out the Khmer Rouge, the king immediately aligned himself with Pol Pot to try to drive out the ‘invaders’. After nearly two million people died at the hands of a genocidal dictator, he was still backed by the US and China, both countries still smarting from defeat on the battlefield by Vietnam. The two powers kept Pol Pot in his seat at the UN for more than a decade after he was deposed, an eternally disgraceful act.

Just to show how far the opposition will go in milking the Viet issue, Kem Sokha, second in command of the CNRP said back in the last campaign that Cambodia had to take back Angkor Wat from the Vietnamese. What? Had they invaded again? It turns out he was referring to Sok Keng having the concession to collect fees at the archeological park. He’s the owner of the Sokimex gas station chain and purported to be the richest man in Cambodia. He was born here and spent his whole life here but he’s an ethnic Vietnamese, which evidently makes him evil in Kem Sokha’s eyes and a campaign issue.

Would an opposition victory tackle corruption? Possibly, at least in the beginning. Corruption is inevitable and inherent in a government that has been in power for a long as the current one. The more secure they feel the less they are responsive to the electorate, so it’s a testimony to the ruling party’s late feeling of vulnerability that the PM has taken many steps recently to appeal to the common people, such as the recent act of waving the need for driver’s licenses for small motorbikes.

The ruling party has set up its Anti Corruption Unit and prosecuted quite a few people, but they are very selective and stick mostly to those out of favor with the party. The head of the unit recently gave important jobs to two of his sons… nepotism and corruption, anyone?

To do it right, just about everybody in government who owns a luxury vehicle should be targeted, because unless they are independently wealthy they didn’t obtain the money through their official salaries… and why would someone with means want to work for subsistence government wages? One big new Lexus SUV costs $225,000. In contrast, there’s a very high average of 50 students per primary school teacher here. They earn about $1500 per year, so one Lexus is equal to salaries of 150 teachers for one year. There’s a shortage of classrooms in rural Cambodia. One classroom can be built and furnished for about $25,000, so one big car is equal to 9 classrooms. Everywhere in Cambodia you see lots of fat cat cars owned by people associated with government.

At a certain point it all boils over in people’s minds. I doubt very much that protests will be involved in any possible transition since the ruling party has vowed to crack down hard. There’s not much threat of violence either, though there’s likely to be unrest and scattered skirmishes. Cambodians have a long history of demonstrating and speaking their minds. Repression will hold them back, but that will only increase their resolve. As result, it seems increasingly likely the PM will lose the next election; that is, if it’s done honestly.

Where does it all leave us who live in our comfortable little bubbles? Will we be impacted if there’s turmoil in the streets? Will we still be able to enjoy the good times in our own parallel universe? The ruling party reminds everybody that Cambo is a sovereign country and doesn’t need to bend to the will of anyone outside, but 20% of the country’s budget comes from the international community and it would be a heavy blow if that were withdrawn. If there’s excessive violence toward demonstrators, the country could be put under sanctions, also a heavy blow to the it’s prosperity. People tend not to invest in times of unrest, so combined with a real estate bubble that’s in the process of bursting, the flow of foreign money may dry up, and expats who’ve already invested in property may see their values drop.

For myself, I’m stuck, I’m not going anywhere unless some unforeseen and drastic event forces me out. I live an idyllic life and have just about everything I could reasonably ask for. Absent that unavoidable event, or some compelling reason to go elsewhere, and considering my age of 75, I expect to die here in Kampot enjoying the expat double bubble.

Talked to a guy at a bar a while back who said since he’d left his old life he’d spent 5 years in 20 countries. When he got to Cambodia he immediately felt at ease, and hadn’t stopped smiling since he’d arrived in Kampot three days earlier.





EU Takes a Bite Out of Apple


Apple was recently hit with an order by the European Commission to pay back taxes of 13 billion Euro to the Irish government for anti-competitive behavior. Ireland gave Apple specific legislation that allowed it to escape from paying taxes on its European sales. The EU, probably unique in the world, prohibits race-to-the-bottom economics. The EU countries cannot play off each other to offer special subsidies or considerations to lure industry, excepting only through corporate tax rates, which I’ll get to later.

The Boeing company’s move of its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago some years ago is a race-to-the-bottom case in point. Though the company had been located in Seattle practically since the beginning of the air flight industry, for whatever reason, the CEO and board of directors decided the company had to move. Maybe they were put out by the reputation Seattle gained for the first anti-capitalist, anti-globalization protests in 1998. Maybe it was too new-agey for their corporate mindset; whatever. Did they consider that many of their employees had lived there for a long time, maybe their whole lives? That they had homes, friends, community there? Okay, the decision was made by a small clique of honchos, for good or ill. So then did they get out their maps and do their research to look for the best location for their business and employees? Did they weigh all the disadvantages and benefits before deciding on Chicago?

No, they started a bidding war to see which city would give them the best tax breaks and special advantages. Chicago is a fine city, though it doesn’t have the glamour of the coasts, but it, like most American cities today has huge problems, not least of which stem from budget woes. Chicago paid dearly in subsidies and as a result schools and other programs important to the citizens of Chicago were diverted to the deep pockets of a very wealthy corporation. Boeing was not hurting, wasn’t having financial problems, they just wanted to milk the city for whatever few dollars they could extort. Yes, Chicago got the prestige of being the headquarters city and quite a few new jobs, but not the tax revenue to help solve its myriad problems.

The same happens here in Cambodia. Manufacturers wanting to locate here get tax holidays of up to ten years. So one of the world’s poorest countries – GDP is now a bit over $1000 per year – provides special breaks for garment factories so they can sell their products a little cheaper to wealthy people in the West. Meanwhile, just like in the American example, the money to pay for the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the influx of workers has to come from elsewhere. There are reasons why companies would want to set up in Cambodia. The only reason why subsidies are needed is because everybody else is doing them, racing to the bottom.

Back to Apple. This gets complicated, but basically what these multinationals do is create a separate corporation that holds their intellectual property, so every time an Apple product is sold in Europe a fee is paid to that corporation, except it is an entity on paper only; it has no employees or physical presence. All the work collecting and holding the money, which amounted to 13 billion Euro in ten years, was done by Apple employees where the taxes should’ve been paid. Besides, most of the creativity behind the intellectual property was actually done in the US.

Apple CEO Tim Cook was livid about the prospect of paying those back taxes and the Irish government backed Apple up saying they didn’t want the money. So here’s a little perspective: Apple is the world’s most valuable corporation based on market valuation, more than $600 billion. The company has $230b stashed in tax havens outside the US, because under US law, they have to pay taxes on those profits when they’re brought back. On the Irish side, 13b Euro is the annual cost of the country’s health care system, about 10% of its GDP, and it is still suffering from austerity brought about by the crash of 2007 and the bailing out of too-big-to-fail banksters. So, to Apple that amount of money is pocket change, to Ireland, a lot of money.

Ireland believes it has to have a very low corporate tax rate – 12.5% – to encourage industry to locate there. Corporate tax rates is the one place where EU countries are allowed to compete, where race-to-the-bottom is allowed. As a result, many multinationals have set up offices there. However, there are several other EU states that also have that low tax rate and others not much above that. So why aren’t Apple and the others going to Slovakia, for instance? Well, Ireland has a highly skilled, English speaking population and companies would locate there regardless of the tax rate, though maybe not if it was really high.

Those low tax rates brought in an surge of investment and jobs but turned out to be a mixed blessing at best. The country was booming which attracted large numbers of immigrants which then fueled a housing boom where small flats in Dublin were selling at astronomical rates which then inevitably went bust in a resounding crash when the world economy tanked. Mainstream economists will tell you that the boom and bust cycle is inevitable, but that’s bullshit. When booms are happening lots of people are raking in the cash and the policy makers and the majority of investors think it’ll go on forever so they naturally push it hard when any right thinking person in power should want to slow it down, should want to keep the excessive growth in perspective because the aftermath for the great majority is worse then the benefits of the upswing, which usually go to the few.

If Ireland had pursued a moderate tax policy and relied on its natural advantages to grow steadily and prudently they would’ve been able to provide jobs for their people rather than growing so fast they were importing large numbers of immigrant workers. But they couldn’t do that because it goes against the grain of growth-at-all-costs modern economics. It was a costly mistake for the country, but they were merely following the dictates of the elite consensus which directs countries to bow and genuflect before their corporate masters.

So kudos to the EU. It’s certainly about time somebody started reining in these lawless corporations whose greed knows no bounds. If Apple acted like a good citizen and wanted the best for the country and people of the US or Ireland or wherever they have their facilities, that’d be one thing, but we know they have no conscience and feel no kinship or responsibility to the nations that provide the infrastructure and educational systems that helps them thrive. They only care about money and we know they’ll use whatever nasty or underhanded means at their disposal to amass more and they’ll never have enough no matter how rich they become.

Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Bugger II – Kampot


The Tico saga continues. After receiving payment for the destruction of my little bugger at the hands of the cop’s drunken son, I had to think about what to do with the wreck. Back in the day when I had tools and the constitution to work on vehicles I would’ve parted it out and saved every tiny thing of any value, not just the almost new tires and good motor, but lights, wires, steering wheel, brakes, suspension, just about everything. But today, after just 30 seconds of bending over an engine my back starts to hurt.

So in order to save it, I’d’ve had to pay a mechanic to do the work and have the parts hauled over to my house, possibly to sit there for a long time gathering dust and rust. Besides I needed the $170 I got for the wreck to help pay for another car, which had to be a Tico since it’s the only car I can afford. There was nothing available in Kampot aside from a guy who specializes in fixing and sprucing them up and then charging a very pretty penny for them, certainly more than I could afford.

My only alternative seemed to be Phnom Penh where a website had three available. Moving around the capital can be a big hassle and it’s never a good idea to buy an old untested car and immediately take a road trip with it, so I hesitated. Then a friend noticed a new entry on the website for one located in Sihanoukville. It was advertised for $800 and looked identical to mine, same color, everything. I hadn’t been there in more than a decade, though it’s only 100k, and was curious, besides it’s a far simpler place to do things so I had to look at it.

And I had to buy it even though it had a serious motor problem. I was told it had had motor work done, but as the seller remarked, Khmer mechanics sometimes leave worse problems than they solve. But I’d been without a car for more than two months and though I’d been able to get around fairly well on my bicycle, and really appreciate the exercise, I was really hankering to get four wheels again… especially going home late at night with snarly dogs barking at my feet. I also needed it to carry stuff for my garden. I couldn’t see myself returning to Kampot empty-handed, so to speak.

The deciding factor was it being a virtual clone of the first bugger and that it’s in better shape than the first in several ways. Also, amazingly, the odometer had stopped working at almost exactly the same place as the first one, 202,000k. It made the journey back from Snookyville just fine and not long later I took it to my mechanic for some smallish problems and an estimate on the motor: he hears the motor and says it’ll probably cost $300. What? I remark figuratively, it’s a tiny 3 cylinder, 783cc motor that I can practically carry around even with my decrepit back. Yes, he says, but it costs the same to rebuild it as it does to rebuild a 4 cylinder 2200 Toyota. I was hoping for maybe a hundred or so for the repair. The motor doesn’t smoke and sounds good generally except for a piston slap problem at high revs, so if I were still in the trade, I’m sure I could do it cheaply.

Right off the bat, even as I was paying for the new one, I wished I’d saved the wreck. Not only did it have a good motor and a set of almost new tires – I bought two new ones for $75 just for the ride home from Sihanoukville – but the only body problem the new one has, except for the plastic bumpers and a grill held together with wire, is a hood that needs painting. In spite of the totalist nature of the wreck of the first, it had a perfect hood.

It’s also the nature of not having much money. The money not received for the wreck plus the cost of parting it out, would’ve set me back another month or two in the quest for a new car, so a double bind.

Barring another unexpected smashup, I’ll probably have it till I die or can no longer drive: I am 75 after all and I believe in doing whatever it takes to keep one running. I wrote an article back in March 2014 titled, An Old Car is Like a Wife. Once I get one, I’m virtually married to it. Whatever she needs, I give it to her, begrudging or otherwise. Getting a new one only sets you up for more unforeseen problems, Why not stick with what you know and have already learned about and dealt with? That attitude isn’t possible anymore in the states unless you can do the work yourself since $80 per hour for shop time makes even smallish jobs hellishly expensive. Here shop time is about $30 per day – though admittedly the quality is not always the same – and you can afford the money to try to make it all work right.

Unfortunately, my credit line is maxed out so it’ll take a few months before I can save the money to get the motor done and it’ll require lots of prayers and a feather light touch to keep it from blowing up before then.

Meanwhile, I got it just in time for very rainy weather, even bordering on deluge occasionally. We’ve only had a few hours of sun in two weeks. Starting on the 7th of August until the 21st as I write this it’s rained every day with two days of 70 and 77mm. Except for those two extreme days, it’s been in an odd pattern of raining hard for short periods five or ten times a day. I don’t remember such an unusual pattern (of course, there’s lots I don’t remember). At the same time that we on the coast have been hit hard, just 20 km inland, they’re in a drought. Unfortunately we don’t have a functioning weather station in Kampot so all predictions are made from a distance, so to speak. Though I’m an anti-TV freak, this is one time when an American style TV weather report would come in handy, you know; high pressure ridge, low stationary front, stuff like that.

Even though I did fine without a car for two months and really appreciate the exercise and would do fine again without one, I’ve gotten lazy: Especially if I think I’ll be coming home late I figure I’ll be better off with four wheels. Once I’ve had my fill of brew, two wheels can get a bit dicey. I always drive slowly and carefully at night and never get that drunk and there’s hardly anybody on the road, so it’s hard to find someone to hit, even if you had a mind to it.


Kampot has been really slow this month, hardly any tourists passing through. The summertime mini-high season has barely been felt. People keep opening up new venues in spite of it all. If they can survive through the rainy season, they’ve got it made.

Wunderbar, a mainstay on the riverside for about 5 years, has closed for good. They’ll be missed by many. Madi Bar has been closed for renovations for two months now and is expected to open again in October… it promises to be greatly improved. For years it was the place to go on Thursday nights, a gathering of the tribes and a place to catch the Kampot Playboys. It’s been sorely missed by this old dancing fool. And without a car for the previous two months I wasn’t able to get across the river to Banyan Tree, the other place to catch the Playboys. I did however get my new wheels just in time for its 1st anniversary party; must’ve been at least 150 people dancing and having fun long into the night. It’s a very pleasant spot on the river and the rain held off for the duration… it’s mostly not under cover.

As for the Playboys, I’ve now heard them about 100 times and every time is so good, it’s like the first time. I can’t think of any band anywhere that I’d want to hear so often, but with the charismatic Chiet on guitar and vocals, a driving rhythm that won’t let you be still, and a crew so tight after playing together for years, you just gotta love ‘em even if all the vocals are in Khmer and you can’t understand a word.

Kampot now has a laundry-café, you know, have a drink or light meal while you do your laundry. Myself, I can’t think of a less attractive way to spend an hour or two, not only having to do my own laundry when it’s already so cheap to have it done.. and ironed, but the idea of all that whirring and chugging in the background while you’re hanging out, chillin’? I do however see people there and I wish them luck.

Several floating restaurants have set up on the river, some garishly lit up. They’re not supposed to set up permanently. Some are cruise boats that return around sunset and turn into bars or eateries. One just moves every day a short distance on the river and then returns next evening. The overly bright ones are a drag on the river’s ambiance and all together if there are too many it’ll degrade the experience. There may be a conflict with the authorities at some point, especially if a lot more turn up in high season.

There’s a boutique hotel just opened up. It’s appropriately called Kampot Boutique Hotel. The building is very classy and beautifully designed, I was impressed right from the beginning. There are people who come here who like and can afford creature comforts so they should do well. However it’s part of a syndrome which probably won’t end well. There’s a old saying: If you find the perfect place, don’t stay because it won’t be perfect anymore. As soon as a place gets ‘discovered’ it gets inundated with seekers of that ‘ideal’ spot.

The prime minister came to visit in early August and got the message from the citizenry – I’m not sure of the circumstances – that they wanted the old bridge reopened. As if by magic, within a few days, after about a year and a half of being closed off, it’s now open to pedestrians and two-wheelers. The closing had caused extra and unnecessary congestion on the new bridge and forced a circuitous route of at least an extra kilometer for many, so it’s a very welcome change.

Until 2010 it was our only bridge and carried all manner of vehicles except the really large ones. After the new one opened, it was progressively closed off to trucks and then cars. At a certain point the heavy metal plates that had reinforced the roadway were removed because they were curling at the ends and creating hazards. That then created a new hazard: There were rusted channels a half meter long or so and just wide enough for a moto tire to get caught in. After that happened a few times, it was completely sealed off… for no apparent reason, since a simple direction from the PM had it reopened in three days. A lot of people, probably including the local authorities, think it’s structurally unsound and it’s certainly not a place you’d want to see used by heavy vehicles, but bikes and motos could never be a problem and if the bridge were to fail under that miniscule load, it’d be easy to detect way ahead of time.


The above situation leads to a question of when Cambodia’s democracy (whatever there is of it) will graduate to letting people choose their mayors and governors. We now have commune elections on the lowest level of government – there are about 1700 in Cambodia – and national elections for parliament, but nothing in between. Because of that disconnect, local officials, who are all appointed by the ruling party, have little incentive to listen to their constituents and free reign to carry out their pet projects without question or challenge. For a word from the PM and a very small effort we have something the people have wanted for a long time. By the above I don’t mean to imply that our local government hasn’t done a pretty good job overall, just that a little citizen input would always make a difference.

We expats live in Cambo because of the opportunities it affords us, the low cost, the lifestyle of easy and minimal rules, and for many the great friends we’ve made. In parallel we complain about the corruption and inefficiencies of life, but I never lose sight of the fact that in many ways the US is just as corrupt and unfair.

For instance, the recent murder of Kem Ley, highly respected and loved by a large segment of the population, cast a shadow over the country. His funeral march, in a great outpouring of grief, stretched for 4 kilometers. The local government insisted it could only be a motorcade with no pedestrians, but overwhelming numbers, probably in the hundreds of thousands, overruled the rulers and the march went on without incident. However, one of the greatest events of the year wasn’t covered by any of Cambodia’s TV stations. They all had lame excuses, like it was Sunday so nobody was working, or trivial things too trivial for me to even remember.

All the TV stations in Cambodia are owned by or aligned with the ruling party so they had no interest in covering the event. In the agreement in 2014 that ended the opposition’s boycott of parliament, they were granted a TV license, which they are still trying to get together. But really, with smart phones and social media, TV has far less sway than in the past. Moreover, the little people of this country knew Kem Ley was someone they could trust to speak out. The PM insisted he had nothing to do with his murder saying he had nothing to gain, which is at least partially true since just about everybody in the country who isn’t a diehard CPP supporter has assumed that he or someone in the party was behind it. Still, an important and independent (he also criticized the opposition at times) voice was silenced and fear was generated in others who are called to speak out.

How’s that stack up with the US? The head of one of America’s broadcast TV channels said that Trump might be bad for America but he was good for their profits: The result was they gave him 82 minutes of free air time on their nightly newscast in 2015. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, who drew more people to his rallies than any other candidate on either side was given 20 seconds. Is that any different than Cambodia?


Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

Karma Strikes Again



Around the middle of May just as I was leaving my house for my nightly bar crawl it started to rain. Most of the day I’d been planning to ride my bicycle the one mile down to the riverside entertainment area. Whenever I figure I’ll be coming home late I’d take my car, a Tico, affectionately referred to as the Little Bugger. It’s really small and exceptionally cute and has a 780cc motor, smaller than some motorbikes. When I expect to go home early I’d take the bike… exercise is always good.

The rain wasn’t hard, but I thought, I’ve got a car, let me be lazy and avoid the rain. I parked it on the river near O’Neil’s bar. I usually wind up there, but till then walk wherever else I plan to go.

About 9 o’clock as one of the staff was leaving, she started to pull her moto out into the traffic, you know how lots of us will start moving before we look closely, besides it was late enough for there to be very little traffic. At that moment, a small model Lexus SUV came barreling down the street driving erratically, going at least 100kph. When the driver, probably drunk, saw the moto pulling out he slammed on the brakes and swerved left to avoid her.

His trajectory was aimed directly for my car which was parked at the curb. His skid marks stretched about 20 meters. He walloped the little bugger right between the doors and the force of the crash lifted the Tico over the curb and dropped it sideways perpendicular to the roadway.

In the next second or so the Lexus smashed into a motorbike about 10 meters further down the street and then hit a tuk-tuk and somehow wound up just inside the park on its side facing the opposite direction from where it came. The tuk-tuk driver, who had been sitting in his vehicle, was pinned underneath the Lexus. There were quite a few people in the park at the time and they quickly pushed the car off of him. In the ensuing confusion, the driver and his passenger hoisted themselves out of the car and took off without anyone to stop them. If someone had just happened to be shooting a video at the time it would’ve been an instant hit.

All this happened at lightning speed. I’d been sitting in the bar, heard the commotion, hesitated a second or two, then went out to discover my Tico had been totaled. By the time I went the few meters further to check on the Lexus, the tuk-tuk driver had already been pulled out. He was sitting up, but in a daze, and died an hour or so later on the way to a hospital in Vietnam. The guy left a wife, who has a heart problem so can’t work, and four kids. Now that’s the definition of a tragedy: good guy that everybody likes, with heavy responsibilities, gets killed in a fluke accident. In a couple of seconds, his family was irrevocably changed.

It’s also a demonstration of the two diametrically opposed sides or meanings of karma. The one side exemplified by the saying, What goes around comes around. Do good and good comes back, do bad and eventually you get your just deserts; if not in this life than surely in the next. The other side of karma reflects cosmic uncertainty, the absolute and utter lack of control we have over our lives. What will be will be. There’s no questioning it. Railing against the gods for the unfairness of life gets you nowhere. Life Is, and while we may and should strive to be exemplary in our lives, ultimately, serendipity rules and there’s nothing we can do except accept whatever vagaries life hands us.

I also played a hand in the poor guys death in that if I hadn’t been lazy my car wouldn’t have been sitting in that very spot and the Lexus might have barreled straight through and landed in the river, certainly a better and fairer outcome. But no, you can’t go there. If my car wasn’t there somebody else’s might’ve been or there might’ve been people walking who would’ve gotten mowed down. Any number of ‘what ifs’ could’ve intruded on circumstances, but you can’t dwell or obsess over them; you can’t change the past.

The two facets of karma can be extended to the conundrum represented by the dual and contradictory existence of both free will and predestination. Everybody has the right to choose, but it’s all been laid out from the beginning of time. The concept is also beautifully expressed by the Rolling Stones song that goes, You don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need. You don’t get what you want: ultimately it’s beyond our control. If you try sometime: if you exercise your free will for the good, then, You get what you need: the gods provide us with the lessons we need to advance spiritually.

The car was owned by a cop as evidenced by the placard in the window, but one fellow who’d seen the guys exit the car remarked that they looked too young to be cops. I gave my telephone number and such to the police and then waited a couple weeks before I thought I’d better check so I went to them. When I got to the police compound I saw the Tico, the Lexus, the crashed moto and overturned tuk-tuk. A Khmer friend went with me, we inquired and were told not to worry, it would all get straightened out. I also was told that he wouldn’t get his car back until he settled with everybody.

Still no word for a couple more weeks, so I went back to discover the Lexus and other wrecked vehicles gone and my little bugger sitting there all by itself. I was really exercised there for a bit and called our friendly immigration cop to find out what was happening. Meanwhile we had learned that it wasn’t the cop who did the damage, but his son. A meeting was arranged between me and the owner of the Lexus.

Rumors had been circulating that he’d initially offered the family of the deceased tuk-tuk driver $2000. Imagine, the life of a husband and father for such a pittance. So I meet the guy, who it turns out is the head of the local fire department. First he tries to weasel out of responsibility by asserting that my car was parked improperly. No, no, no I say, it was exactly where it was supposed to be parked. Then I hear that his car was taken by his son of his first wife, from his second wife’s house, without permission while he was off in Phnom Penh on official business.

I tell him I should get $1000 since I’d paid more than that just a year earlier. He offers $300. I said you’re joking, yes? Then I get his hard luck story about how he’s had to borrow to pay for all the damages and to fix his car. I originally thought his Lexus was worth a lot but discovered that it’s a 1999 model and worth around $9000. I say I feel sorry for you, but there’s no reason I should suffer because your son wrecked my car. I say, My car was sitting there peacefully, just minding its own business when your son came along to destroy it. I tell him I can’t buy another car for $300 and I have no money in the bank. I wound up lowering my price to $800, figuring getting a grand was a lost cause. Over the next couple weeks, he wore me down and I went to $600, he came up to $500. At that point I said I’d never take less than six and he finally got the message that I was adamant and immovable on that point.

After the money was counted, both he and the immigration cop who’d been negotiating and translating for me, took a picture of both of us holding the money. A good way to guarantee a transaction took place and nobody can claim otherwise. Then the immigration guy said I needed to give some money to the department, suggesting $30. I made a face and said, How about twenty? Okay, he says. Then I say, How much for you? The same? He said ten was okay for him, but I gave him twenty anyway.

I had heard from two people, an expat and the immigration cop that the accident had cost him ten grand, but from a tuk-tuk driver friend I was told the family of the deceased only got $2,800 from him. So where’d the rest of the money go? To the courts to keep his son out of prison? Would he have to pay his own bosses to keep the whole mess quiet? It wasn’t going to cost that much to fix his car in spite of everything. Certainly, by Cambodian law, compensation to victims does not exonerate the perpetrator, it’s not a substitution for serving time for breaking the law, and I told the guy his son should be in prison.

The guy and the town’s government got off easy since somehow the news of the accident never made it to the newspapers. It would have been far different if they’d had to answer questions to the press of how the destroyer got off without incarceration and would’ve exposed the workings of corruption here.

I did have a little sympathy for the cop, he went through plenty of changes himself over actions of his bad boy son. He’s just trying to live his middle class life (on a subsistence salary) and kaboom, he’s had to take on a lot of debt and go through a lot of hassle. Can I blame him for trying to get off cheap? Well, yes I can and do, but wouldn’t a lot of people react like him under the same circumstances? Wouldn’t most people under financial pressure try to minimize their burden if given the chance?

And his son: How many guys do you know who haven’t done crazy things when they were young? I’ve driven quite dangerously in my life, including not so long ago when I first bought a car here. In my case though, I was never under any illusions that if I did cause real damage I’d pay heavily for it. And I never drive the least bit carelessly when I’ve been drinking. The police and their offspring, part of the elite in this country, don’t worry so much about those things because they feel confident they’ll be able to avoid real consequences. They feel impunity is their birthright. It also happens in nearly every country. For instance, a few days after G.W. Bush took office his daughter was busted for underage drinking and let off scot free while hundreds of young people without connections had gone to jail under a new Texas law that Bush promoted that sharply increased penalties for just such transgressions.

Impunity relieves you of paying for your bad behavior in this life, but karma is forever. The young destroyer will live with his murderous act as long as he lives. He’ll feel privileged that he didn’t have to pay for his crime, but that only applies in this life. He will pay in his conscience, if he has one, for all his days. Maybe he’ll block it out, pretend it never happened. Maybe he’s truly arrogant and thinks that peasant lives don’t mean much anyway. But karma can’t be discounted, the cosmos never forgets.

Getting back to the Stones; If you don’t try sometimes; that is, if you never seek to align your karma, energy and thinking with righteousness and enlightenment, if you always see only ego and advantage over others, if you focus only on the baser aspects of life, you certainly won’t get what you need to move up in consciousness and spirituality. If you succeed economically, you’ll still not be happy inside. You could be like Bill Gates who, in spite of being the world’s richest person, still lied and cheated and used sleazy underhanded methods to amass additional wealth. I’m referring to the several times his company was indicted and fined in both the US and EU for anti-competitive behavior, who promised as part of the settlements to give up his nefarious ways, but who nonetheless reverted as fast as lightning.

No amount of wealth can compensate for lack of a spiritual foundation. I don’t care how much Gates gives away to charitable causes (some of which I heartily disapprove of; such as charter schools, GM crops) he’ll still reincarnate (if you believe in those things) as a peasant farmer with a hardscrabble life or maybe a cockroach; that is, if he doesn’t cop to his sleazeball ways in this life. If you believe in the Christian heaven and hell, he’ll either go straight to hell or spend eons taking remedial courses in empathy and integrity in a kind of half-way house. Think about it: fabulous wealth in one short mortal life in exchange for eternal life? Is there any question?

It isn’t for nothing that one of the most famous verses in the bible is when Jesus says, It’s harder for a rich man to get to heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Rich people never have to rely on faith or serendipity, never have to live in uncertainty. They always have what they want so they never get to experience the workings of cosmic energies and synergies. They never learn to trust in love and faith.

Kampot was hit by another heartbreaking tragedy recently. Two young fellas, 33 and 38, attending the same party, died from taking some type of white powder purchased from a tuk-tuk driver. They’d also been drinking heavily. Two young lives snuffed out from… what? Carelessness? The need to escape, to binge? (one guy was nursing a broken heart). Feeling of invincibility, like it can’t happen to me?

The loss of those lives was totally unnecessary, but they had a choice to make, not like the tuk-tuk driver who’s life was taken by a fluke accident. It’s not for us to understand why these things happen, the laws of karma can not be described or pigeonholed or made to fit into our notions of how things work or are supposed to work. You can never make a direct connection. If there’s any meaning or value in these events it’s only that we’re beholden to be conscious and conscientious in all our actions and strive to be good because you never know when a cosmic zinger may zap you out of this mortal coil. You don’t want to get caught short.



Genetically modified food




Every couple of months, or less, a true believer in genetically modified crops posts on my fb feed a meme which asserts (paraphrasing) that anyone who objects to GMOs is an anti-science luddite who would rather see the world starve than embrace a wonderful new technology.

I’ve always been wary of GMOs and my opposition was solidified in 1999 when a study done at Cornell U. was published which showed GM corn pollen to be toxic to monarch butterflies. In that study they dusted GM corn pollen on milkweed leaves – the only plant that monarchs feed on – and in a short time half the insects were dead and the rest had digestive systems that were seriously damaged. The insects fed the milkweed dusted with natural corn pollen suffered no fatalities.

What they were fed was Bt corn, Bt standing for Bacillus thurengiensis, a bacteria which is a natural pesticide. In fact, it’s used by organic farmers to control pests and has been since the 1930s, though the current widespread use of Bt GM crops is lessening its value for organic growing. When Bt is sprayed on a crop, it gets washed off and diluted and has no negative effect on the environment, when it’s part of the plant, the entire plant is toxic to most bugs.

Shortly after the study broke, articles appeared in the NY Times and other mainstream media ‘debunking’ the study. The debunking was based on the fact that there wasn’t that much milkweed growing near GM corn, so it wasn’t an existential threat to the butterflies. Possibly true enough, Bt corn isn’t necessarily a threat to the monarchs, but that’s irrelevant to me. The study merely showed Bt corn pollen to be toxic to the insects.

If you search for ‘GMO butterfly study’ you get an entry for the original Cornell study, back up research from U of Iowa confirming the results, five sites claiming that all types of GMOs really are a threat to the butterflies – counts are down 90% compared to the past – and two which refute that claim saying, as in the original ‘debunking’, there isn’t that much milkweed growing near the crops. What is never debunked is the toxicity to monarchs, that’s not in dispute.

To me that would have been a very loud wake up call to the need for long term studies on mammals. So far there have been no such studies. It’s entirely possible for a natural substance to be benign to one species while toxic to another, but so far we don’t know what effect, if any, that food has on humans. One possible reason no long term studies have been done is that Monsanto, responsible for the majority of GM seeds, takes a dim view of serious studies. Since their seeds are patented, you can’t really do research without their permission. When research is done through other sources and it turns up negative, the company is aggressive in harassing and slandering the researchers. Their profits are at stake and they will do whatever they can get away with to protect that wealth.

The other type of GM crops in widespread use are modified for tolerance to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The original idea, I believe, was that less herbicide would be needed, but it’s turned out exactly opposite. Targeted weeds are gaining immunity requiring the application of increasing amounts of herbicides and with that the appearance of superweeds resistant to any amount of glyphosate.

To begin with I find it hard to imagine why anyone would think it’s a good idea to apply massive doses of poison on food crops and agricultural land. Equally pernicious, is the idea of patenting life and giving control of seeds to corporations. In the past farmers would customarily save a portion of a crop to plant next season, makes perfect sense. But GM seeds must be purchased each year and contracts signed agreeing not to save seeds for later planting. This has led to quite a few farmers being sued by Monsanto.

The experience of Percy Scmieser, corn farmer in Saskatchewan, is a case in point of the evils of this system. He never purchased Monsanto seeds or wanted them; always saved his own, still he was sued by Monsanto for using their patented corn. You see, his field was contaminated with GM pollen blown in from neighboring fields. They got him because even after he knew of that contamination he went ahead and planted those seeds anyway. So now it’ll be virtually impossible for any farmer who’s fields aren’t completely isolated form others to grow non GM seeds for more than one season. He initially lost, appealed and the case went on for many years. Last I heard he’d been exonerated. I mean, what’s to stop Monsanto from purposely, secretly contaminating the farms of non-GM buyers? I sure wouldn’t put it past them.

Another fascinating and frightening aspect of GM crops is that when you grow them and natural crops together almost all of the pollinating is done by the GMOs. Ninety percent of Percy’s crop was GM. I’ve read before about the uncanny fertility of GM pollen. If GMOs do turn out to be a problem, there’ll be no natural seeds left in America or any country where GM crops are grown.

GM crops will feed the world, we’re told, but everything I’ve read from skeptics and Wikipedia says GM seeds do not increase yields. The only case mentioned in Wiki, in their very long entry, was Bt cotton in India, but then they said the extra cost of the seeds cancelled out the increased yield.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Wikipedia’s section on this subject. There are a lot of studies saying GMOs are not a problem and of course their use is backed up by the US Food and Drug Administration, so they must be okay, right? Obama’s recent pick to head that agency is a former Monsanto exec… in a long line of industry flacks holding positions of authority in the agency, so I trust them as much as a message from Mars.


Many reports say they are substantially the same, which seems to leave some leeway for nasty things to intrude. Substantially but not totally? But how can they be the same when one kills butterflies and the other doesn’t?

Recently an announcement was made that 100 living Nobel laureates came out in favor of modified plants. It was a big deal. The news was everywhere. What wasn’t mentioned is that there are 300 laureates, so 2/3rds declined to sign. Also, very few of them got their prize in a field related to biology. But it’s a good establishment ploy nonetheless: they’re so eager for the public to embrace GM foods, they’ll go to great lengths, like a recent article, reprinted in the Cambodia Daily, which stated that organic food is more dangerous than GMOs. The number one proof of that statement was that a batch of Cliff organic energy bars was found to be contaminated.

So I sarcastically commented in a friend’s pro frankenfood post how great it was to ingest large amounts of agrichemicals. He came back with Stick to the subject, this is about GMOs. Even after multiple pro GMO posts, he along with another pro-frankenfood friend, didn’t seem to realize that a large proportion of GM seeds sold today were modified with a tolerance for Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Sure, a batch of Cliff bars is contaminated and that outweighs millions of kilos of poisons applied to the land.

Since Vermont’s mandatory GM labeling law, America’s first, is about to take effect, the US congress is rushing through a labeling law to supersede it. It was designed by the industry: instead of merely printing on the label what it is, which would be so simple, the consumer will be provided with the options of a computer code or free 800 number so they can check with each purchase. Monsanto and its ilk own the government so that even though vast majorities of Americans want to know what’s in their food, industry and their flacks try to obstruct that goal.

As far as I can tell, GM crops add absolutely nothing to agriculture but come at a high price in terms of potential damage to the land, to us human guinea pigs, and the loss of control over the seed stock to a private corporation that has no other allegiance but to profit and no compunction whatever in using any and every means at its disposal to protect those profits.

Cambodia Politics and Development, Phnom Penh, Uncategorized

Phnom Penh Traffic



The Cambodia Daily recently featured an article about the capital’s worsening traffic. A few years ago, or so it seemed, I marveled at how it only took 20 minutes to get to the airport from the river: it is, after all, only 9 kilometers. Today, more than an hour.

Phnom Penh’s traffic will never reach the astounding levels of Bangkok in 1993 when I lived there. It was before the first skytrain so all trips had to taken at street level. Traffic was so bad you never started a trip across town after 3pm unless you had no choice since it routinely took up to 4 hours to go as little as 10 kilometers. I’d regularly get off a bus a mile from my destination and make it there faster walking. A couple of times, when I had time to kill, I’d hang out and watch while traffic would come to a dead stop for nearly an hour, while cars and buses would be idling and continuously spewing out their exhausts.

There’s no such thing as a megacity the size of Bangkok with 12 million people without terrible traffic woes and overcrowded transit services, but a large part of Bangkok’s problems are the result of poor, actually nonexistent, planning. There are areas in the heart of the Sukumvit district loaded with high rise apartment buildings which are served only by narrow streets or alleys. Most often there’s only one exit to the main thoroughfare and there’re no connections between parallel streets. The amount of space devoted to streets in the city is half that of most cities. Mass transit systems are fabulously expensive to build, but because of the lack of street space in BKK, far more important. Residents of the city who are able to structure their lives close to mass transit get around fine, everybody else still has to contend with horrendous traffic jams.

Traffic in Singapore is not much of a problem, but it’s a special case. For one, it’s only got about 5 million people, an order of magnitude less difficult than a megacity. As an authoritarian government, it was able to wipe out large swaths of older (historic, in fact) areas with narrow streets in favor of very wide streets. Mostly, it uses taxation to severely limit the number of people who can afford to drive. You have to pay $75,000 to buy a permit to own a vehicle. Even in a relatively wealthy country that amount would preclude most people from car ownership. They’ve provided a fine mass transit system as a compensation, but still it’s unfair to design a society so only the rich can do something as pedestrian as owning a car. Also a reasonable urban population of 5m makes it possible with good planning and generous expenditures on infrastructure to run smoothly.

Megacities can never function smoothly, but a city of less than 2 million, such as Phnom Penh, did not need to get so bad. There are several reasons for the traffic slowdown in Phnom Penh; some are generic to growing cities, some self-inflicted. Among them are population growth and the expansion of the city’s area that almost inevitably accompanies that growth. Increase in income, which invariably results in increasing numbers of vehicles. Public policy which exacerbates the problem with poor planning.  Ignorance of or flouting of the basic rules of the road that hampers traffic flow combined with lack of enforcement of those rules. Lack of resources to build necessary infrastructure to ameliorate the situation is always a problem. Usurpment of public sidewalks requiring pedestrians to be out on the street dodging traffic also impedes flow.

Cities provide opportunity, that’s why they draw people in. That’s especially true of developing world cities since the countryside alternative has little opportunity and leaves people there in dire financial straits. That’s why Thais flocked to Bangkok in spite of the daily grind of spending so many hours stuck in traffic. And they still do in spite of the difficulty of living there… it may not be as bad as the 1990s, but still a hassle.

Income has been growing very fast in Cambodia, one of the ten fastest growing economies in the world in the last decade. Thus the surge in car and motorbike registrations. A private vehicle is especially important in a city like Phnom Penh with its nearly absent public transportation system. Without restricting car ownership like Singapore does, there’s nothing that can be done about increasing numbers of vehicles, though a comprehensive public bus system would help.

Expanding population not only increases the number of trips taken proportionally to the expansion but also makes the length of the average trip longer. So, for instance, a doubling of urban population probably triples the number of kilometers traveled. While roads in the outskirts of the city can be designed wide enough to carry substantial traffic, it’s extremely expensive to widen streets to accommodate the additional traffic in a built up city, especially one as dense as Phnom Penh.

Taking the above two together, the city is in a bind before any possible action is taken to ameliorate the problem. Unfortunately, many actions taken by the government have seriously worsened traffic, though in some cases they actually thought they were improving the situation. The prime example is the trading of inner city public buildings which in many cases were old and inefficient for new buildings on the city’s outskirts. They thought that placing them at a distance would reduce congestion, whereas exactly the opposite is true.

Before you had small buildings in low density, campus like settings in or close to the heart of the city. Most people who had business to do in those places lived relatively close. Now with those facilities far from the center, 90% have to travel farther, adding lots of kilometers to the city’s traffic. Public servants have had many complaints about the additional time and cost involved in getting to work. It also turned business with the government into a hardship for many since the absence of public transportation has meant high transportation costs for those who don’t own vehicles.

As campuses many had large areas of pervious surfaces; that is, places where rain could be absorbed into the ground rather than sent to the city’s overloaded drainage system.  Every hard rain now causes flooding and traffic chaos because many of those areas are now high density, with no onsite drainage. There was on street parking by those campuses, easing the parking burden. Much of the new development has brought increased traffic in more congested spaces. So a lose-lose situation.

Park spaces are oases of calm and allow for unimpeded traffic flow on their borders. Thus the multiple negative impacts of the recent filling in of 16 hectares of wetlands in the Olympic stadium grounds. First of course is the loss of water storage and the likelihood of increased flooding. The wetlands formerly drained the entire stadium area, now all that goes to an inadequate drainage system. A former green, calm and cooling spot is being replaced by a large, dense development that’ll attract thousands of vehicles a day into one of the most crowded parts of the city.

High density development is fine. Actually, in cases where the transportation infrastructure exists to accommodate that density, it’s a good idea. If there was a mass transit stop there, then sure, great idea (although never at the expense of a public green space).

The city is doing what it can to speed the flow of traffic with the construction of flyovers. They eliminate points of congestion, but can only go so far. It’s a great feeling speeding over cross traffic, but then you’re stuck in the same jam as soon as you descend to street level a minute later. The only way to move large numbers of vehicles in an urban environment is with freeways, limited access highways, but they are fabulously expensive and would be highly destructive of the city’s fabric. One measure that could be undertaken and should be a priority is a freeway circling the city that would allow vehicles passing through the urban area that don’t have business within it to bypass the congested inner city. It still would be far too expensive for the government’s current finances, but at least one should be in the planning process and land acquisition begin.

One very important proposal that came out of the above mentioned article was train service to the airport. The track already exists except for the last little distance to the airport itself. The trip from the train station on Monivong to the airport would take as little as 10 to 15 minutes and interim stops along the way would remove a lot of vehicles from the streets. However, even with existing track and right-of-way, it still would cost $180 million. Infrastructure for a modern city, whether road or rail oriented, is never cheap but essential if the city wants to avoid extreme traffic like Bangkok.

Except for the airport train, mass transit for Phnom Penh is on fantasy level. Without someone throwing billions of dollars at the government, it ain’t gonna happen. Meanwhile it makes no sense to even talk about mass transit until the city has a functioning bus system. That’s something that could’ve happened long ago and while every urban bus system in my knowledge needs public subsidies, it wouldn’t be all that much and should’ve been a priority all along.

A bus loaded to capacity takes up less street space than the number of motorbikes needed to transport the same number of people. The government has been trying for years to get someone to build a bus system and then operate it at no charge to the city… never happen. There are three bus lines now when the city needs twenty. There are supposed to be 10 more by the end of the year. Whatever the cost, it doesn’t equal the benefits that’d accrue. Unfortunately, even with new bus lines, traffic wouldn’t change much, it’s just growing too fast. It would however, keep the situation from deteriorating even faster.

The next transportation priority after the airport train would be to build a modern bus terminal next to the train station. That way people could zip into town from the airport and have buses on hand to complete their journeys to their destinations around the country. Now it’s just chaos with separate bus stations all over town. A single bus terminal would be a boon to travelers since you’d have many competing companies in the same place. That’d be especially beneficial in having many different schedules; that is, buses leaving to your destination much more often. When I was at the central bus terminal in Kuala Lumpur, vendors were discounting tickets in competition for my last minute seat.

All advanced cities today are building bike lanes and other facilities to make biking easier and more enjoyable. Something like half of all trips in Amsterdam are on bicycle, by any standard a better idea than trying to accommodate all movement on motorized vehicles. Bicycles are nearly silent, pollution free and provide a healthy alternative transportation mode.

It’d be very difficult in most parts of the city to make special places for bicycles. Other places it’d not be that difficult; the park strips, the river would be relatively easy places to start. Norodom Boulevard has very wide sidewalks which could easily accommodate separated bike paths. I ride bicycle every day in Kampot, but I would never consider doing that in the capital, except maybe on Sunday morning when there’s hardly any traffic.

Sidewalks are another essential ingredient to improving traffic flow. Having pedestrians dodging vehicles and competing for street space with them is a terrible idea: it’s dangerous and uncomfortable for pedestrians and impedes flow. A friend took his Khmer wife to Europe for a holiday where she greatly enjoyed walking. She was eager to walk when she got back to Phnom Penh but quickly soured on the idea in the face of the many barriers to enjoyable walking here. Blocking sidewalks, usurping them for private use was not allowed before the Khmer Rouge. It was only later under the Vietnamese occupation that the practice became widespread.

It’s now so entrenched, it’ll be very difficult to change. Still even when the city does go through lengths to make walking comfortable, as in the remodeling of Street 130, there’s no enforcement of the rules and it quickly regresses back to the old form. People liked the new system, but within a short time owners were blocking the sidewalks again with the police either not caring or incompetent. What gets me the most is the inability of the government to keep the sidewalks on Sisowath clear. I could hardly believe it last time I was there. I saw a car parked on the sidewalk totally blocking it and another car perpendicular on the curb with no space in between: people had no choice but to be out in the middle of a busy traffic lane. It’s uncivilized and totally out of place in a city that has pretensions of modernity.

As final note on sidewalks: Before the KR, in addition to sidewalks being totally clear, they were built as a unit on one level. Even if they were clear today, it’d still often be a hassle using them since you’re constantly going up and down and some are built at relatively steep angles. In other words, construction is totally uncoordinated and at the whim of the property owner. It can’t be that difficult to make rules for sidewalk construction. It’s the baby stroller or hand truck rule: If it’s inconvenient for them it’s improperly designed.

One additional factor that makes walking inconvenient is the confusion in Cambodia between curb cuts and driveways. Curb cuts are for intersections between streets and require two changes in grade. A driveway keeps the sidewalk at the same level: there’s a relatively steep rise between the street and sidewalk for vehicles, that in fact slows them down while crossing the sidewalk, a good thing. What should be driveways are turned into curb cuts which speeds vehicles and discomforts pedestrians.

Finally, getting drivers to learn and obey basic rules of right-of-way is no-brainer. When you are making a right turn and you have someone cutting the corner making a left and he/she gets right in your path, it becomes an absurd situation.

Phnom Penh is in a bind trafficwise. Everything the city might do to improve the situation, within its financial constraints, will be outweighed by growth of population and wealth and the densifying effects of the city’s push to develop every possible vacant space. Nothing suggested here will solve the traffic problem, it can only get worse. At best these suggestions will only keep congestion from getting even that much worse… still a good thing.





Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia, renewable energy

Blazing Hot



Kampot’s feeling the heat. It’s been relentless: As I write this in the second week of May it’s 32C – 90F – at 7pm, at 1pm it was 38C, 100F . We even have a bit of an advantage in Kampot. Since our temperatures are moderated by being near a large body of water we don’t get as hot as the interior. Even so the sweat drips off of you; at times I can’t even keep my glasses on, they slide down my nose. It really takes it out of you, like merely trying to breathe after you’ve been out there in the sun walking or on bicycle. It bears down, saps your energy, makes all physical activity an effort. All that said it doesn’t matter all that much to me personally, I don’t let it affect my daily life. I don’t purposely wait until the heat of the day to go riding around town, but I wouldn’t hesitate if necessary, though I must admit, I don’t feel much like hiking in the mountains when the temperature’s really hot. For really strenuous activity it makes sense to let it cool off a little first.


Anyway, we all better get used to it, because the heat is only going to keep on breaking records. Every country in SE Asia (except Thailand which came close) has experienced its all time national heat record this hot season. In Cambodia it was 42.7 C in Preah Vihear. What’s more, large swaths of the area are seeing severe drought and not surprisingly, very high temperatures are a characteristic of drought, which means plants dry out that much faster.


This has not been good for my garden. Even drought tolerant plants, those who can survive for long periods of arid, sweltering days, really don’t like it. A cactus that can manage just fine at 40°C without rain for months, would much rather it be 25 with a little rain once or twice a week. For those plants not designed to deal with that kind of weather, they get really stressed, it’s a real chore trying to keep them irrigated and happy. Moreover, the only good times to water – early morning, late afternoon – the water pressure has been so low it sometimes comes out of my hoses as a limp trickle. It’d be okay at midnight if I could see what I was watering and wasn’t stumbling around because I’d smoked and drunk to my limit by then. I have four hoses for my little space to minimize having to drag them around.


Even under the best conditions I have so many plants, mostly in pots, it takes nearly an hour to get to everybody. When the pressure is low and the temperatures are through the roof, all I can do is keep them alive in a holding pattern. And besides all that, they much prefer rainwater, not only because it contains no chlorine residues and such but also because they are more thoroughly irrigated by the drip, drip, drip than a big dose all at once.


The only respite we had recently was 12mm of rain we received on two days in early May. Before that the last rain was end of February and minus a few scattered sprinkles, you have to go back to early December for any substantial precipitation. Now, in the middle of May clouds are building up and looking like they want to rain, and some places nearby actually have seen some precipitation, but not Kampot. The government has been bringing tanker trucks to supply water to some areas around town that’ve gone dead, dusty, dry.


Finally, starting on May 15 we’re beginning to get some ‘real’ rain – 25mm – with predictions of rain every day for a while. Phew! What a relief. And on the 16th a deluge; 80mm – more than 3 inches – in less than an hour. The government now says the drought is over and normal rains have begun. As deadline approaches a big storm predicted to dump 250mm in six days is headed our way.


In drought, one of the most likely and difficult outcomes of global warming, Cambodia (like my home state of Oregon in the US) has the ability to get through it easier than many places in the world. One great advantage is a relatively small population which puts less pressure on limited resources. Secondly we have a relatively wet environment to begin with – when it does rain, it really comes down. Both the above factors have limited the overuse of groundwater. Densely populated places and especially the arid ones will be in for rough times when the heavens stop dropping their loads. In many parts of India, for instance, groundwater is being mined so extensively that water tables in many places are receding by a meter or more a year, requiring ever deeper wells. In other words a lot more is being taken out than is being naturally replenished even in the best of times.


I’m also reminded of a picture I once saw taken in California’s San Joaquin Valley. It included a gauge which showed that the land had subsided by five or six meters. Essentially, with the groundwater removed the land had sunk and consequently it can no longer hold as much water as in the past. It was permanently damaged. At any rate, no matter the severity of drought here in Cambo, there should always be water down there; it should never go completely dry as will happen in many places. It may not be enough to flood rice paddies, but at least there’ll be something.


Meanwhile, world heat records are being broken with regularity and by jaw-dropping amounts. Each of the last twelve months has been the hottest ever recorded for its month and March was the hottest on record for any month based on divergence from the norm. Not just that, but the temperature was nearly .2°C above the next hottest. Those kinds of records are usually broken by .01°. In the recent Paris climate meeting it was decided that the previous goal of keeping warming to 2°C was too much, the world couldn’t handle it, that 1.5° was a safer, more urgent goal. Well, March did it. It was supposed to a goal for a decade or two in the future, but it’s already here.


One factor in the warming is called positive feedback loops. For instance, snow and ice are white and reflect most of the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere. When it melts and either dark water or rock is exposed, most is absorbed and thus further pushes the warming process. And since the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, the loss of ice is accelerating the changes. Last February the Iditarod sled dog race which starts in Anchorage Alaska, which is at 62°N, was unable to start without bringing in many truckloads of snow… first time ever.


As for making the changes in time to make a difference, the Paris conference had no binding commitments, only loose goals that the countries could follow if they wanted. So even while industrial powerhouse Germany on May 12 this year received 90% of its power from renewables – sun, wind, hydro and biomass – and Portugal recently went 4 1/2 days solely on renewable energy, many nations, including Cambodia, are pushing ahead with coal power. Sounds like a planetary death wish.


Trump, who might well be the next US president, has called climate change a hoax, and Clinton, the likely alternative (I’m still praying for Bernie) is a strong promoter of fracking. The fracking industry pushes the idea that natural gas, because it releases a lot less greenhouse gases than coal, is a good transition from the present to a fossil free future. Unfortunately, studies have shown that lots of methane is accidentally released in the fracking process. Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as CO2, but on a 20 year basis it’s 87 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, and even on a 100 year basis is still 30 times more potent.


If the TPP – Trans Pacific Partnership, covering 12 countries on the Pacific rim –  and TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and EU – were enacted, countries could no longer control the process. Industry would be given free reign to pollute and despoil to their heart’s content – all thanks to Obama and his corporate backers. And if a country refused to allow fracking it could be sued for lost potential profits by the industry.


Mr. O, who I like as a person, has reneged on almost every campaign promise he made that had to do with protecting the environment and the proletariat. In his first campaign he promised to renegotiate NAFTA, the trade pact between US, Canada and Mexico. He made no attempt to make good on that promise and instead has promoted the above trade pacts which NGOs refer to as NAFTA on steroids.


If I believed in conspiracy theories, I’d think he was the Manchurian Candidate. Remember, the movie was about a perfect candidate groomed by a foreign power to win an American election so they could use him to subvert the government to their own ends. For a long time I thought, if Obama’s the Man, who would be his controller? The CIA and Goldman Sachs would be a good starting point.


At any rate back here in Kampot we’re in the throes of low season and most places on most nights are pretty quiet. A few have shut down for a month or two. A long time owner of a restaurant on Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay that caters almost exclusively to tourists has said that in ten years of operation June was always his slowest month and we’re not even there yet. There’s a bit of an uptick in July and August, a mini-high season caused by people in the north who have their vacations in their summertime, but then we’re back in the depths in the rainy season in September and October.


It isn’t just the travelers who’ve disappeared. When you think about it and look around you also realize that lots of expats have also left for extended periods. It’s a time for many to go back to their home countries and take care of business when the weather is warm. For others, the rain or snow birds, they divide their time between Cambo and the West. Last time I was back in the states, I was there for 5 weeks and thought it was way too long. It was good to say hello to everybody, but my life and home is in Cambo.


An $80 million passenger boat terminal is being built with loans from the Asian Development Bank on the east side of Kampot river (actually it’s called a bay) about 6 kilometers south of town. In the process they’ve uglified the area by widening the shoreline road and clearing mangroves over a long stretch of it.


A year or two ago they built what myself and many others thought was going to be a passenger port for direct access to Phu Quoc across the river from town between the two bridges. It’s about right for boats with capacities of around 20 or so passengers. I do see boats there on occasion but it definitely hasn’t got an immigration post. The island is closer to Kampot than Ha Tien, the nearest Viet town, so it would certainly make sense to have direct boats going there. I’m guessing that port was built for about 100,000 to 200,000 dollars.


Now step back for a second and think about what kind of boats would need an 80 million dollar terminal. Ocean liners? The Queen Elizabeth? For little old Kampot? Ships carrying thousands of upper crust passengers docking in Kampot? All those pretentious people descending on our grungy, plebian little burg at one time? Maybe I’m missing something, but it sure looks like a gargantuan boondoggle to me.


On a very positive note, one of the businesspeople in town recently announced he was going to sell biodegradable take home packaging. Within a couple days and in spite of higher costs than petrochemical based plastics, more than 30 expat business owners signed on to the concept. I’ve also heard a similar movement is afoot in Phnom Penh. Most people don’t realize it but corn and other crops can be used to produce single-use cups and containers that are indistinguishable from the plastics we are now using, except, when tossed on the ground, they’ll literally melt into the environment in a few months instead of hanging around being a toxic hazard for thousands of years.


For sure a few dozen expat owned businesses using biodegradable packing isn’t going to make much of a dent in the mountains of non-bio plastics now being used and discarded here, but you have to start somewhere and who knows, maybe the idea will catch on and the government will step in to ban the evil stuff.


I’ve thought about what it would take to do my shopping in the local market without accepting plastic, but what would you do with meats? I doubt if waxed butcher paper would ever be economically feasible here. Banana leaves? Also seems like a hassle compared to plastic. I have a cloth bag to put the whole purchase in, but some type of container is going to be necessary for each separate item.


The current practice of many locals and some expats is to burn them along with yard waste. Bad idea. The noxious smell that burning plastic gives off is a clear indicator that it’s toxic to breathe in. Landfilling isn’t great either but far superior to burning. The burning of organic material isn’t that bad environmentally, though breathing lots of smoke of any kind is not benign. Most importantly, all burning exacerbates global warming. At any rate it’s much better to compost organics, especially here in the tropics where heavy rains leach most nutrients out of the soil.


Farmers burn crop waste because they think it improves the soil. The ash that’s leftover from burning does give a quick boost of potassium and phosphorus to the soil, but all the nitrogen and organic matter that could improve the soil’s tilth goes up in smoke. Burning is quick and easy and people like to watch a good fire, but it’s not the best way to go.