Kampot, Cambodia

Speed Bumps Are Dangerous

So said Kampot’s mayor – here called governor – when suggested by an expat as a means to slow traffic down on the riverside. Previously, there were two speed bumps on the stretch in front of the museum and governor’s mansion until the last time it was paved when they weren’t replaced. So maybe they were dangerous, but they did cause most drivers to slow down and the danger was to those who were going too fast to begin with. A big part of the problem is that most traffic during the dinner hours is young people cruising back and forth along the riverside with many young guys showing off and acting like cowboys.

The traffic, in other words, is totally unnecessary, serves no legitimate purpose, only casual fun for youth. The government is aware of the problem. Some time ago barriers were placed preventing through traffic through the most congested area, but, needing to be maintained on a permanent basis, they gave up after a week or so.

It remains dangerous: A friend lost his leg to a young motorbike speedster; a tuk-tuk driver lost his life in the same accident that totaled my car because of a car going way too fast; I saw a guy get hit straight on by a speeder – it was late at night, but still in a congested bar area; I got hit and scraped up a bit by a speeding motorbiker who was going too fast to notice I was crossing the street on my bicycle. Really, the tales of damage and hurt are plenty, as I’m sure the government is painfully aware. So what’s to do to slow down traffic if speed bumps are out? The city can’t just leave the poor bastards who are hit and maimed or killed to their fate because of inaction.

A big part of the problem is that river road is being turned into a major thoroughfare both south of old town to serve the new passenger port and north of town heading up to the east of Bokor mountain. That doesn’t change the necessity of making the road safe, something needs to be done.

In planning parlance it’s called traffic calming. If a street is needed and appropriate for traffic you do your best to smooth it and keep it moving. If it’s not needed then you work to slow it down, make it a safe and pleasant place to be in. The case of the riverside is a bit tricky since it’s home to a congested area of restaurants and clubs at the heart of a thoroughfare. That’s where calming comes in. One possible device is rumble strips, the ones used on highways to denote school crossings. The ones being used on highways are not strong enough to really slow down traffic so they’d need to be sharper to really jolt drivers into slowing. There are also speed humps: they’re more gradual than bumps, but still make driving fast very uncomfortable.

Another is curb extensions. What happens there is that the street is narrowed at crosswalks. Requiring traffic to fit into a narrower space forces it to slow down. The crosswalk can also be raised a bit and a roughened surface added to further discourage speeders. In addition to slowing traffic down curb extensions reduce the distance pedestrians have to cross, making it much safer for them. The third advantage of calming is that it encourages people to find alternative routes.

While we expats love the lackadaisical way much is done in Cambodia, at a certain point a little government intrusion is the only thing that’ll make us safe. The country’s infrastructure has improved immensely in the 15 years I’ve lived here, so I give the government a lot of credit. But because the growth has been so fast the government gets overwhelmed. The anything-goes, no-need-to-think-about-it attitude that worked just fine when there were few vehicles on the road turns into total dysfunction when the streets are filled with them. Organization is the only answer. How to get the government to be more responsive is the challenge.

Kampot’s old bridge is another case in point. Seven years ago after the new bridge was finished the old bridge continued to be used, though before too long a height barrier was placed at the entrances to prevent large vehicles from crossing. Then about 3 years ago the bridge was completely closed because rust in certain spots had made it hazardous. They even made it difficult for pedestrians and bicyclers to cross it.

There was an obvious need for it. Large numbers of motorbikes were being funneled onto the new bridge making it much more congested and a lot of people were forced to travel out of their way requiring extra time and fuel.

Also it was clear that the problem with the bridge was minor, not structural, and a lot of people wanted it open. It wasn’t sturdy enough for heavy trucks but no problem whatever to carry lightweight motorbikes.

Then the PM came to town, heard about the people’s wishes and ordered the bridge opened. Three days later it was open for traffic – motorbikes and bicycles only – and in one more week the surface had been improved and the space made safer. Cost was never a factor, I’d guess the whole project cost the equivalent of 100 or 200 square meters of asphalt pavement.

I counted the traffic a bit before noon on a weekday and in 10 minutes 150 vehicles used it. That’s 900 in one hour and about 10,000 daily. Considering most people use it twice, that’s at least 5000 people who’ve benefited from its opening. And that in a city of only 50,000.

Why was it necessary for the PM to light a fire under the local officials to get that improvement done?

Another example of missing government is represented by the kids playground on the river near the new bridge. It is fabulously popular for parents and children who gather in droves every afternoon. It’s the only public playground in the city whereas there should be one in every commune at least. It was financed and built by expats at a cost of $8000. Much of the work was volunteer so the city would have to spend more, but still a pittance compared to what’s being spent on streets and sewers.

In other words the only impediment to more playgrounds in Kampot is the indifference or disconnectedness of local politicians. Part of the problem is that there’s no mechanism for people to voice their ideas and complaints to government. Furthermore, I consider an important reason for that disconnect is that local officials are not elected, all are appointed to their posts by the ruling party. In essence they only have to keep their bosses happy rather than the people, though I must reiterate that they do a reasonably good job and have accomplished much. Nonetheless, local officials are often not responsive to citizen concerns.

In the same vein, even as the city is expanding there seems to be no provision to increase park space. The city should be inventorying potential future park space. There’re lots of nice spots around town that’d be perfect for them.

On a related note I had a chance recently to visit a waterfall about 5 kilometers above the Teuk Chhou rapids on the edge of Bokor park that’s been recently opened and improved for visitors. For a long time the Chinese builders of the Kamchey dam wouldn’t let anybody up into that area. It’s in a dramatic setting and would be very exciting in rainy season. Even with our unseasonable rains there was only a trickle of water coming down. For the hordes of locals out for a good time out of the city for Khmer New Year, the lack of water wasn’t much of a loss.

That points up the pent-up desire of Cambodians for experiences of the natural world.

There’re lots of trails in and on the edge of Bokor park, but they are most often not maintained, so passage can sometimes be very difficult. On one trail I used to frequent a blown down tree blocked it some years ago and I couldn’t find a way around it. A couple kilometers out of town and five kilometers from Sihanoukville Road is a trailhead that leads to a creek that’s smallish, but still very beautiful with giant boulders and rushing waters in rainy season. It goes through a dense forest and has a very nice hidden waterfall, but the waterfall’s so hard to find, I once had a Khmer guide ask me where it was. I’ve only managed to see it once from above after hiking on the trail at least 10 times. So far the only way to be sure to see it is to go up the creekbed for about a kilometer, climbing over those giant boulders, and I just haven’t been up to it.

Many people both foreign and local would enjoy that forest experience, but the trail’s poorly maintained state and lack of markers to tell you where you are and how far you have to go, make it difficult. The only national park I know of with marked trails is Kep National park, but they were done by a private individual. There is one marked trail up on Bokor where the casino and luxury developments are happening, but nowhere else. When are the authorities going to wise up to the need for its citizens for natural experiences and to the opportunities to boost tourism that maintained forest trails would provide? It sure wouldn’t cost much. There were hundreds of people flocking to the recently opened waterfall, there’d also be many to enjoy a simple mountain trek.

BTW, a friend recently went up to the casino on Bokor. Even after years of being open, he was the only customer.. millions of dollars for a luxury development that nobody wants to be part of. The only good to come of it are improved roads. In the 95% of the park not up on the plateau where the ruins remain from its past, there are beautiful natural forests and dramatic creeks, but no way to enjoy them.

In a western society, at least in my experience in Portland, Oregon, solutions can be sought even if not always found, with citizen participation. When a problem is identified the government draws up proposals and then they’re put before the neighborhoods involved and the general population at which time public hearings presided over by planners and elected officials are held. In Portland citizens are generally given 3 minutes each to talk and voice their opinions.

Cambodia’s system of elected commune officials actually, at least in theory, offers more power or influence to the grassroots than the system in Oregon, where for instance, the city of Portland with half million people has five councilors elected at large. On the next lower level in Portland is the neighborhoods which have a lot of influence but whose leaders are not elected and have only advisory powers.

Here in Cambodia the entire country, both urban and rural, is divided up into communes and every one has an elected leader and council to represent their constituency. There are about 1700 communes in the country as a whole and in Phnom Penh there’re about 100. (In fact I wrote up and had a bill introduced to the Oregon legislature back in the late 1970s to do something very similar since many areas of the state have limited elected representatives. However, at least in Oregon, every little town – sometimes with as few as 40 or 50 people – district and county has an elected leader and council.)

Here in Cambodia there are only 2 levels of elected government, commune and national, nothing in between. Every post in between is appointed by the ruling party. This is a problem for the opposition since even if they get a large majority of votes in a city or district, they have no say in who that leader is. In the last national election the opposition received more than 60% of votes in Phnom Penh whereas the city is run by the ruling party. While campaign promises don’t always mean that much, based on what the opposition has said, the city would be governed much differently under their leadership. This is not to say that local elected leaders would necessarily be less corrupt, just that in the end result, the people are given the power to change their government and its policies.

Once again park space is a good criteria for judging responsive government. Surveys of Phnom Penh residents consistently show a desire for more greenspace, while the government is doing just the opposite; reducing greenspace at every opportunity and making no plans to increase it in the future. The capital has a dismal 1% of its area devoted to greenspace and that includes inaccessible traffic circles. The people who run the government have their villas and the ability to enjoy the countryside so they seem to be blind to the needs of the average citizen for greenery, a respite from the endless concrete of a dense city. Phnom Penh has a lot going for it, especially in job availability and entertainment, but most people you talk to would rather live elsewhere, not a good sign.

Unfortunately the system will never change as long as the ruling party is in power. And who can blame them? Democratization of the electoral system would only result in a loss of power for them. It’s very common for parties in power to use whatever means, including underhanded ones, at their disposal to retain that control. It’s no different in the US and many other democratic and nominally democratic systems.

It made sense early in the country’s democratic organization to have limited offices to vote for; the people being largely uneducated and the country just recovering from its trauma, but the people have grown a lot over the years so it is time for power to be disbursed and decentralized with local leaders closer to their constituents.

Politics in Cambodia has been going downhill of late with the fate of the country’s fragile democracy coming into question. That reflects on the poor state of democracy and free discussion in the region as a whole with only the Philippines and Indonesia coming ahead of Cambodia on a democracy scorecard.

The ruling party has been going through great lengths recently to suppress the opposition, but with social media giving corruption and unresponsiveness no place to hide, it’s up for debate whether the ruling party’s many accomplishments will outweigh the feeling on the part of many that they’re being used, that their needs are ignored and that the wealthy and powerful enjoy impunity.

For us expats the question is whether the country’s political problems will impact us.  Hard to say.

 

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