Pneumonia, the Old Person’s Friend

Pneumonia, your friend? How could that be? Well, most life threatening illnesses take you down slowly and painfully, you waste away a day at a time gradually giving up your life force. The reason pneumonia can be benign comes with the modifier ‘old’ and the likelihood that geezers would have other illnesses giving them pain and hardship. When pneumonia comes along, if your system is already compromised with other ailments, it takes you out without pain or any consciousness of what’s happening.

At least that was my experience. I went out to have a few beers, as was my habit, on Saturday, December 30, but after the first bar I decided I should go home rather than bar hop. That’s the last I remember. I must’ve gotten up on Sunday and gone through my daily routine, at least some of it, because neighbors reported me wandering somewhat aimlessly around the neighborhood. I can visualize that, but only because I was told it happened. That was a strong clue that something was wrong since I always ride my bicycle around the hood, even if it’s only 30 meters. After that, the next thing I remember was my friend trying to startle me awake in the hospital on the following Tuesday.

I had no inkling that something might take me over and no warning whatever. Now my friend, who accompanied me to the hospital and who spent 35 years as a nurse in Australia, insists I had lots of warning since for a week before the event I had been coughing hard and producing great gobs of phlegm. But that had been happening a couple times a year for 5, even 10 years, I can’t say for sure how long, only that it was long enough for me to think it normal. It happened in a pattern though that did make me wonder. I’d catch a cold and drop some Chinese medicine to take the hard edge off the stuffed nose and such. I’d also stop smoking weed for the duration. Even a relatively long time after the cold was vanquished, I’d still be coughing. Maybe it’s some type of bronchitis I’d think.

Maybe pneumonia was sitting there dormant most of the time, while my generally healthy immune system kept it in check. Only 1% of pneumonia cases are fatal and only 10% of cases need to be hospitalized so I assume people can have mild cases without realizing it.

Another prominent symptom is shortness of breath and I did seem to be breathing harder, however it wasn’t debilitating in any way and I figured at 76 shortness of breath is normal. Fever, chills, chest pains are also common symptoms, but I experienced none of that. I went very calmly, peacefully and painlessly into a coma. I didn’t know any thing about pneumonia or its symptoms beforehand, I didn’t even know what it was.

What I’ve gleaned about pneumonia from reading over the Wikipedia entry several times is basically that it’s an inflammation of the lungs and that it affects the small air sacs called alveoli. Pneumonia results in scaring of the alveoli thus making it difficult to take in much air, which accounts for the long time it takes for many people to recover. There can also be a build up of fluid in the lungs with the same results.

Most cases are caused by bacteria, but can also be virus, parasite, or fungi based. Surprisingly, in half of cases the causative agent cannot be identified; it’s pneumonia but they can’t tell you where it came from. That’s backed up by the experience of a friend who came down with it after returning to California from Cambodia. He was in the hospital for 10 days but they couldn’t identify the actual cause. A similar thing happened to a friend here in Kampot. She spent four nights in the hospital but she didn’t have pneumonia… well, pneumonia is also really a broader term that encompasses all types of lung infections.

Another surprise is that a large percentage of infections occur in hospital or other health care facilities, and the infections that are contracted there are more resistant to antibiotics. In total, there are about 450 million cases a year, 7% of world population, with 4 million fatalities. That’s only about 1%, but of those cases where hospitalization is required mortality bumps up to 30%. It’s basically the young, the old, those with chronic illnesses and those people whose immune systems are already compromised who die from it.

Conditions and risk factors that predispose to pneumonia include smoking, immunodeficiency, alcoholism, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, and old age.

Smoking is the most prominent risk factor, but Wikipedia doesn’t differentiate between tobacco and cannabis. While any kind of smoke will cause irritation, there’s a vast difference between tobacco which is a leading cause of cancer and cannabis which has never caused any disease. No one has ever died from smoking weed, at least not in medical terms. The others are quite obvious. The one thing you can’t correct for or do anything about is old age, though staying healthy clearly makes a difference.

My approach of the edge came because my condition wasn’t recognized early enough. Anybody who knows me who saw me on that Sunday when I was wandering around aimlessly would’ve known right off that something was wrong. I must’ve been confused and incoherent and needing attention. Confusion is a common symptom found in oldsters. Even if I didn’t look like I had any medical problem anyone would’ve realized I needed an eye kept on me.

Not saying I wouldn’t have needed hospitalization or required more than three months to recover as is typical for old geezers, but it certainly would’ve saved me from the problems with my legs and feet caused by dehydration; I was without any food or water for 2 days. When I first woke up in the hospital I was so weak and my legs so stiff I couldn’t lift them a centimeter off the bed. Now I get around okay, but I walk funny, hobbling just a bit because my feet are still not working right. I can flex my ankles and toes, though not fully, but my feet feel numb. It’s been three and a half months and I see steady improvement, but it feels like at least another month or two before my feet are back to normal… if they are ever going to be totally back to normal. A health care professional I talked to recently said it took him a full year to recover… sure sounds like a long time.

The scary thing is having no warning, so even if I now know the symptoms, would I recognize what’s happening if it hits again? Actually, I think I might have an inkling should it return. That last Saturday night before I went under, after I’d had a couple beers I was thinking of a couple more, my usual amount, but I felt a bit strange inside and thought I’d better head for home instead. I think I might remember that feeling and recognize it next time as impending doom. I sure hope so.

Now I breathe hard at times just like before, and I often also tend to breathe through my mouth. Is that because I’m not getting enough air through my nose? I also cough up a bit of phlegm a few times a week. It’s nothing like before, but is a bit of the infection still there, just enough to eventually take me over again? Is it gathering strength waiting to pounce at its opportune time, with me still unawares? Should I be getting blood tests every couple of weeks just to make sure? Not likely, though I probably should on occasion.

Should I be taking antibiotics as a preventative measure? My nurse friend says I should be popping those antibios at the first sign of a cough. I misinterpreted what he was saying for a while thinking he was suggesting I take them proactively, but what he really meant was if I get another chest infection with the hacking cough and lots of phlegm I should go right for the antibiotics. He says they might prevent another bout and it can’t hurt taking them. That I can agree with.

I take antibiotics only when the need is clear and obvious, like against the clap, for instance, otherwise every time you take them you’re wiping out your good bacteria as well as the evil ones and weakening your immune system; that is, not giving it time to do its job or try to do its job, and taking a chance that you’ll build up resistant bacteria and the antibiotics won’t work when you really need them.

With few exceptions, I shun all pharmaceuticals. I don’t take uppers or downers, painkillers or mood enhancers. More than 90% are petrochemically based and all come with nasty side effects. Of course, I wasn’t going to tell the docs when I hit Calmette that I don’t like drugs; I couldn’t say anything because I was totally out of it. When I did regain some level of consciousness, I just took whatever was given to me, only going off the drugs at home when I ran out. However, if it had been a slow moving sickness, I might well have done the research and decided for myself what to take. Ultimately, I credit my general health and strong immune system a least partly to that dislike of drugs.

Except for a hernia operation back in 1960 when I was 19 and a hairline fracture in my foot about 20 years ago, I’ve only been to a doctor a handful of times in my adult life. Hepatitis, Dengue, I just toughed it out. As stated by a couple different doctors, my state of health is what saved me. As an old fogey having any other serious health problem I would’ve been a goner.

I credit Calmette, Cambodia’s number one public hospital, for keeping me alive, but according to my friend, the level of care there is about the same as it was in Australia 40 or 50 years ago. The way he described his experience there hanging out with me, it’s almost like I survived in spite of the care at Calmette rather than because of it. Regardless, that’s where I was brought back from the depths. While the head doctor at Kampot’s public hospital was quick to send me off to Calmette, he thinks I could’ve been taken care of just as well locally. The one advantage Calmette has over the local facility is an MRI. The original diagnoses that I’d had a stroke was disproved by the MRI I had at Calmette.

There’s also a local training hospital run by Australians that could’ve taken care of my needs but money up front would’ve been a problem there. Calmette will take you as long as you bring your passport, which they don’t give back until you pay. Sounds fair to me. Of course, I was fortunate to have a friend show up my second day in the hospital to cover my bills. He made everything much easier.

By some miracle, I was able to raise the money to pay him off. The total bill came to $3500; that was for 10 nights in the hospital, doctors, medicines and tests. Amazing. The money came through online fundraising, personal gifts and a fundraiser/survival party I did here in Kampot in mid March. My benefactor friend suggested he’d be more inclined to help in another emergency if I was able to cover his costs this time. While I don’t plan to get sick again (well, of course) it’s good to know he’d be there for me. At 76 there’s no such thing as buying affordable insurance. I admit I have been a wastrel at times: when I had money I pissed it away. It was a great time, but now I’ve had to bring out the beggar’s bowl. Such is life.


Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

If You Find the Perfect Place….

There’s and old saying (well I don’t know how old it is, just saying I didn’t make it up) that goes, If you find the perfect place, don’t stay because it then won’t be perfect anymore. Now there are a lot of people in a walkabout phase of there lives, you know, constant traveling, searching, discovering. Others like myself are looking to chill, relax, settle in so when we find a place we like we put away our walking boots and hang out for a while.

The things that attracted us to Kampot – small, uncrowded and uncongested, laid back, easy going, historic old town, reasonable rents – all are changed for the worse by our presence and the additional people who come in our wake. The only thing that doesn’t change is the town’s beautiful setting, though even there the growth of wealth in Cambodia has already started to bring massive traffic jams to Kampot on weekends and especially holidays from people wanting to access Bokor Park and our other scenic spots.

We’ll also probably see the town irrevocably changed by high rise towers: though no formal announcement has been made, there are very strong rumors of a 42 story building being planned near the river. With that monster, if it should come to pass, will come others. Where’s our peaceful little town then? Where will the longtimers go to try to replace Kampot’s lost vibe? I have friends who prefer Koh Kong precisely because there are very few expats, it’s a genuine Khmer town, and nothing is happening.

It seems like nothing but an economic crash, either in China or the wider world can slow down or bring to a halt, at least temporarily, the kind of development we disdain for our town. This isn’t the place for a long winded essay on the world economy, but suffice to say that there are huge warning signs in inflated stock markets and massive debt in China and the industrial world. If a crash does happen, we’ll definitely feel it. In 2008 I bought land near Kampot for $4.60 per square meter. Two years later after the big financial crash, it was worth only $2 per meter. It’s currently worth a lot more than I paid for it, I’m just letting people know that property values do go down.

As for myself, I’m stuck, I can’t go anywhere. I’ve been in Kampot for 10 years and all that time in the same rental house. I’ve created a little Eden of exotic plants that would be extremely time consuming and/or a tremendous hassle and/or downright impossible to move. Also my rent never has and never will be raised so I’m now paying half or two thirds what it would go for in today’s market. And most of that rise has happened just in the last year or so. I guess if most of my friends left, I’d also be forced to packup, but it would be a wrenching experience. I have friends here that go way back. Even if there was a better, more ideal place for me, it’d take years to build up the kind of friendships I have here. So in spite of the hordes of tourists and cheesy happy pizza places that follow them, I’m stuck.

High season is upon us and there are lots of people around. Hoping to capitalize on the influx, loads of new bars and restaurants have sprouted up like weeds, especially the ones who sprinkle weed on your pizza to give it a little extra pizzazz. They’ve practically doubled – we now have about fourteen – in the past year making for a lot of happy people in such a little town.

I hope for their sakes they clean up now because tourism takes a deep dive after Khmer New Year and except for a minor uptick in July and August, it stays in the basement till December. Most offer fifty cent draft beers and low prices so it’s hard to see them making any money, though being high season most have sufficient customers.

The Western eating establishments also keep coming; we now have Hungarian, Mexican, Korean and Israeli and a couple Indians well as the regular old Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish and middle eastern that’ve been around for a while.

If you want to hang around, and lots of people seem to, and you’re not a fogey with a pension or a moneybags with deep pockets, you’ve got to find something productive to do and lots of people choose bars and restaurants.

I don’t keep up very well with the food about town, since I rarely eat out. I also would make a terrible reviewer since I couldn’t bring myself to badmouth crappy food if it was coming from a friend’s restaurant. At any rate it’s nothing like the old times when there were a handful of western places to eat.

You see tourbuses of Chinese tourists around, but they mostly seem to come for the Bokor casino. A friend who went up to Bokor recently said he saw lots of tour buses in the parking lot. It was always nearly empty when I saw it and the couple times I went in (following a friend, I don’t gamble) there were lots of staff waiting on no other customers except my friend. Now the old hotel has been refurbished and is open for occupancy with room rates ranging from $430 to $700 per night.

Cambodia as well as a lot of developing countries is intent on attracting high rollers. Many in government have disdain for budget travelers: one was quoted as calling them rat tourists. And yet a survey done by Thailand quite a while ago showed that backpacker types actually spent more in the country than the big timers because they stayed so much longer. They also bring a big advantage to the country by frequenting and boosting local establishments instead of the big hotels and such who are often owned by multinational corporations.

The activity around town has been given a big boost by the arrival of a large number of Sihanoukville refugees driven out by the Chinese invasion there. Now I have no problem with the Chinese per se, in fact, I lived there in the mid-nineties and had a great time. I also think Cambodia’s open policy towards immigration which we expats have greatly benefited from has been a very important part of the country’s development and that welcoming everybody will help Cambodia become an international center of innovation and advancement.

There are somewhere between 700 and 1000 expats living in Kampot. The town as a whole has about 60,000 so we constitute more than 1% of the population. Since our income averages 5 to 10 times the local average, we are about 10% of the economy and that’s significant.

There are signs however that the government is tightening up on our laid back lifestyle. For instance, they are now getting serious about work permits requiring anybody under 55 who wants a regular visa that allows you to renew indefinitely to get one. Yet there’s no provision for people with lots of money who don’t need to work. They’ve also now replaced a system where foreigners could get driver’s licenses renewed at agencies with no hassle. Now you must go in person to Phnom Penh. It’s cheaper but it’s also a very big hassle if you don’t live in PP.

However, back to the Chinese influx, when a large number of any one nationality come in a short time there are going to be problems of adjustment and compatibility. That’s especially true of the Chinese who are isolated from the larger Cambodian culture, not to mention world culture, by language difficulties and inability to relate outside their own milieu. Their alienation is also prodded along by their previous lack of access to uncensored, unfiltered news and views from the outside world. The Chinese government doesn’t allow them to use facebook because it can’t control it.

So the ones with money have bid up the price of real estate in Sihanoukville by throwing their cash around, knocking on property owners’ doors and offering more than the property’s worth. This is great for the limited class of property owners and there is some trickle down to the average person since sellers will feel rich and spend more around town, but the vast majority of locals and expats will be negatively impacted. Many of Kampot’s Sihanoukville refugees are here because they’ve seen their rents double overnight, or been told to leave on short notice. Besides, Chinese landlords prefer to rent to their own because of language and cultural differences. Many times they won’t even serve us in their restaurants.

This will change in time with adaptation and acculturation, but meanwhile they bring a lot of tension, not to mention crime associated with the casinos, most of which are illegal, they’re opening. The working classes are also prone to angry outbursts and fighting, so the Sihanoukville authorities have a challenge on their hands and they’ve already complained about that to the central government.

In other news: Phnom Penh will soon be inaugurating an airport light rail line. As some of you might remember, I ridiculed the idea some months ago when it was first announced. As I predicted, it’ll be very slow: 22 to 30 minutes for the 10 kilometer distance between the train station and the airport.

However, in relative terms, compared to how long it often takes on the streets, that’s not so bad. In a friend’s case it took 90 minutes. It wasn’t that long ago I marveled at how you could get to the airport in just 20 minutes almost anytime of day. Those times are long gone and the situation can only get worse. Once the traffic reaches a certain point there’s no amount of infrastructure spending can fix the problem; it can help temporarily, but not fix it. Subways and skytrains can get passengers moving, but they are fabulously expensive. For instance, an overhead train to the airport is projected to cost $180 million and that’s in a place where the land is available and it would be relatively easy to build.

Freeways can get vehicles moving (until they too become so crowded vehicles move at a crawl) but they too come at enormous costs. Yet economically growing poor countries think it’s great that their people can begin to own cars and they push the idea hard. Meanwhile, the richest, most advanced countries, discourage cars and promote bicycle use.

Back to the train. The problem is there’s only one track so there’s a lot of time lost in waiting while another train passes. Travel time could be cut to 10 minutes or less with double tracking. With the upcoming start of trains on the Battambang line that short 10km stretch of track will get very busy and even slower. The service will operate every 30 minutes in both directions.

It’s fortunate that Phnom Penh has it’s airport so close to the heart of the city. In fact the authorities are planning on a new airport south of town out past Takhmao. It’ll require a big expenditure in infrastructure, including a new road and rail line, should that move happen. I think the country would be better off making do with the airport where it now is, just because it’s so convenient.

Once again Cambodia came out almost scraping the bottom in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index: 160 out of 180 countries surveyed. In some ways, of course, we prefer the current system where you pay a cop up front for a driving infraction rather than deal with tickets. But it sometimes gets outrageous for the locals. A friend’s wife lost her ID card and was told by the commune police it would take 3 to 4 months unless she paid $100 to get it in a couple days. The opposition had promised to post a list of services with official prices and expected time for delivery in every commune it controlled. Now that there’s no opposition the people are back to dealing with the same people they voted against and stewing and fuming over the corruption they have to deal with on a daily basis.

On the other hand, as was pointed out to me in an article in one of the lefty web sites I frequent, in many ways the US is far more corrupt in spite of its place at 18 on the index. A study done recently showed that the people’s wishes had no correlation to what came through congress. Corporations own the government.

The case of Martin Shkreli, a young hedge fund asshole is a case in point. He became the country’s most derided and despised individual last year when he bought a pharmaceutical company that produced a rare lifesaving drug and promptly raised the price from $13.50 per dose to $750, thus putting it out of reach of many people who needed it. He’s now in prison for defrauding rich investors. Charging an exorbitant price for a lifesaving drug in the US is perfectly legal. In fact, he only got busted for fraud because he was such an abhorrent figure that prosecutors were looking for something to nail him with. But he’s really small potatoes; the banksters who crashed the world economy in 2007 were bailed out when they should’ve been behind bars. They filled their pockets with bailout money and never paid for their transgressions in any fashion.

So yes, in many ways the US is at least as corrupt as Cambodia.

Meanwhile, the big guy recently said he didn’t think Cambo needed to change. Now that opponents and dissidents are being detained and repressed, there’s no-one willing to say otherwise.

Still, I’m stuck here and as long as we expats aren’t harassed and are allowed to be ourselves we can’t complain, it’s not our country, no matter how much we have invested. (Though we could call it our country if we had the $60,000 necessary to buy a Cambodian passport) We just have to deal with it and stay low key.


Near Death Experience

Sometime on Sunday night of the 31st of Dec or maybe Monday morning I went under, lost consciousness. I had developed pneumonia, a lung disease. In this case it was a bacterial infection. By the time I was discovered I was very close to my end. One of the factors that saved me was my association with Kampotradio.com, our local internet radio station. Around the middle of last year I started doing a one minute weather report six days a week. A few months later I took on a music show four nights a week. When I first started the music show, Darryl who runs the station, would stack an hour’s music on the playlist just in case I didn’t show up. In response I said I always meet my commitments; if I say I’ll be there, I’ll be there. After a couple months he started to believe me.

Well, after 2 days not seeing me around, missing two weather reports and a music show, he grabbed a friend and went to check me out. At my house they saw my bike and my car and my padlock was on the inside of the front door, meaning I had to be there. They called me and heard my phone ring, but received no response.

At that point some local guys were found to pry open the wooden shutters of my bedroom window and there I was, on my bed with one leg hanging off, lying in a couple days accumulation of mostly dried piss. They thought I was a goner, but then somebody spotted my foot moving. This created some urgency to get me to a doctor and required breaking in through the strong metal back door. The padlock on the inside of the front door wasn’t locked, but near impossible to get to from outside.

By now it was quite a scene. Several young Khmer guys with gusto and a lot of noise went about breaking the door down with their hammers and crow bars and what have you. Once in the house my friends changed my clothes and hauled me over to the local public referral hospital. The head doctor then quickly hooked me up to a glucose drip and took a blood test, which indicated I had pneumonia and needed antibiotics. They didn’t have the facilities to care for me, so next stop was Phnom Penh’s Calmette hospital.

Now the primary reason for my condition was pneumonia, but two or three days without eating or drinking set up a secondary problem almost as bad as the original. I became severely dehydrated which turned my legs stiff as boards. Every movement brought out moans and groans and cries of pain. Kampot’s public hospital ambulance is actually an old Landcruiser with the back seat removed and you can be assured that there are lots of rough spots in the 148 km run up to the big city so I made lots of noise on that trip. Or so I was told, I remembered nothing.

Once we got to Calmette, they put me back on the drips – glucose and antibiotics – and added oxygen and took more tests. The doctors there gave me a 50-50 chance of survival. Sometime Tuesday night I heard my friend shouting at me: Stan!, Stan! Wake up! Do you know where you are? You’re in Calmette hospital in Phnom Penh. That was my first conscious moment in nearly 3 days and a big surprise. At the time I was shaking and shivering uncontrollably. Every molecule in my body was in motion. I settled down somewhat after that but still most of it was a blur.

Calmette is  Cambodia’s primary public hospital. It’s located on a large campus in the heart of town. Trauma and fracture patients from around the country go right there… assuming you’re not loaded: those with the means go to Vietnam or Thailand or one of the new foreign financed hospitals in the capital.

Once I settled in at Calmette I stopped shaking, but I was still mostly sleeping or barely conscious. At one point not long after I got there they wheeled me into an MRI. All I remember of that was them telling me to close my eyes. The MRI confirmed that my problem wasn’t a stroke. One fascinating aspect of Calmette is that all the reports are in French, though I can’t imagine more than the top echelon can speak or understand it. I presume that as long as they keep their reports in French, France will keep buying them expensive equipment like MRIs and such.

Many locals use the term Calmette with derision. Having been there once before looking for a friend, it all seemed quite clean and orderly, though in fact I never did get to see my friend. Having saved my life, I can’t speak badly of it, though for sure there are horror stories of incompetence floating around the place. Maybe my case was simple and straightforward and hard to mess up. Anyway I’m alive. One important point to note about public hospitals in Cambodia is that they only provide medical services; all the peripheries, food, clothing, hygiene, etc. are the responsibility of the patient, usually provided by family.

For sure staff handled my stiff legs as if they were intent on torture. When I first got there I couldn’t lift my legs even one inch off the bed, but they were twisting me around as if I was normal, each time eliciting a forceful cry of protest. Stop! Stop! Slow! Slow! At one point they made fun of me, but unfortunately, I wasn’t together enough at the time to respond.

Meanwhile, on the second day my financial angel showed up to cover my expenses. He’s one of the first people I met when I got to Cambodia some 16 years ago. The way he put it, paraphrasing, I make lots of money, I spend lots of money, I throw lots of money around but still have enough to save. He then said some will come back through donations, some through fundraising and rest goes to good karma. Fair enough. But then he later emphasized the need for me to raise money to defray his costs, saying he’d be more inclined and capable of helping in the future should I need it. And that applied to other friends in dire straits. He’s not poor, but he’s also not rich. As it turned out, 10 nights in the hospital, doctors, medicines and tests came to a total of a bit more than $4000.

After 4 nights in Calmette, he decided I’d be much better off in a private room in Central a private hospital near by. Central was quite a contrast from Calmette. From being in one of three beds in a crowded little room, I had a big place with windows and lots of room for friends to visit and hang out. It even had a little fridge, you know, all the comforts. In Calmette I had a bed with no adjustments, but frankly, I was so out of it much of the time there, especially in the beginning, I hardly knew what was happening anyway. The new bed was a fount of comfort with every manner of adjustments and I was just beginning to be mobile enough to make use of them. It was about a week after the rescue before I could stand on my own and I mastered turning on my side about the same time.

At Calmette they had me peeing through a catheter. The thing about depending on catheters is that you lose some bladder control in the process, so after they take it out, your pee comes a lot faster than you’d expect. I had a pee can but you have to stay on the ball, like remembering to remove the cap before you start pissing…. Only the dumbest, funniest of my many mishaps. As sick as I was I really didn’t care, figuring they’d get around to cleaning me up in good time. The nurses were sensitive and good, knowing not to bend my knees where they didn’t want to go.

At Central I was coasting, the hard work of getting me out of the grim reaper’s clutches was done at Calmette. At Central I had the time to think about possible permanent damage. My right eye stood out. I noticed right off that it was blurry and much weaker than before and everything I saw was double. When I was rescued I was told it was badly infected. The impact on my sight was very noticeable and came out later quite humorously. So I’m looking at a ceiling light and my right eye starts to wander, I mean really wander, practically a meter from the stationary left; like it was on its own. At one point a friend was sitting in front of me moving his arms… all four of them, just like a Hindu god. I later mentioned that to him and he said, So that’s why you were staring so hard. It’s not wandering any more, but still very blurry. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will change. I’m hoping a new lens in my reading glasses will at least correct the problem for reading.

After a few days the hospital got me a walker. I used it to move around the room and walked the long hospital corridor several times for the exercise. Unfortunately, though I knew I needed the exercise, I mostly just wanted to sleep and rest. That’s how I feel now as I write this more than 6 weeks later… I see a bed, I want to lay down. I figure if I want to sleep so much it must be good for me, but of course the exercise is good too. I’ve got a walker now at home and used it a lot in the beginning, but now, 2 months later, I get around on my own, though for sure I’m sometimes a bit wobbly.

A couple of other strange seemingly unrelated conditions have affected me. For two weeks I had something like a planter’s wart at the side of my mouth. It was like columns of flesh 2 or 3 mm long – about 1/8 inch –  growing out of my lips. It was very strange looking; a friend thought it was food stuck there. After about 2 weeks it simply disappeared.

For about a week my legs and feet swelled up and I was tasked to keep them up to help drain the blood. At a certain point they were looking really bad, almost frightening, then next day they were totally back to normal, the only exception being that the skin on my left foot feels like leather. Once again a baffler. Where did all that blood go? I hope that’s it with the strange maladies.

Central hospital had lots of free rooms so they gave me an ICU, which included lots of running tests and such. One shocker was my blood pressure, I mean in a good way. Back visiting the states 5 years ago my pressure was up close to 180, the level where you start to be concerned. This time it was 130 over 65, the level of a healthy young person. Also all my other indicators were in the good range or so close as to be of no real concern.

One doctor commented that I would’ve been gone in 2 days if I wasn’t so healthy to begin with. Well, I do make it a point to live a healthy lifestyle; ride my bicycle every day, eat lots of veggies, avoid animal fats, control my beer intake; six cans a night, with one or two nights with no alcohol, was my limit until not long before I went under. Starting a couple weeks before that I began feeling that I needed to reduce that to 4 or 5… I was feeling too drunk.

Getting back to the point, it’s quite a paradox to be so ‘healthy’ and yet be taken over by a disease that rendered me unconscious. The literature says some people, especially the elderly, become confused when they contract pneumonia and the effects range all the way up to going unconscious like me.

I had no hints or inklings or warning signs whatever of impending disaster. Fortunately, all the pieces came together to save me; being otherwise healthy, having friends who were concerned enough to search me out and having doctors who knew what I needed.

So I’ve disappointed the grim reaper and here I am. A new lease on life, a fresh start… but I’ve always tried to do the right thing, so I’m not sure this abyss I’ve managed to escape from will affect my attitude toward life. I’ll just keep doing my thing and hope I don’t make too many dumb mistakes along the way. Or maybe I do have something special to do while my life winds down, who knows?

In your mid seventies, you can’t help contemplating mortality. There’s no messing with the law of averages. No matter how hale, hearty and healthy you are or you feel, every day brings your time closer. Considering how good I felt, I thought I’d pass away easy, you know, die of old age with no chronic diseases or catastrophic events like strokes or heart attacks to bring me down.

But you never know, do you? Anytime you can be caught off guard, blindsided, sent for a loop, turned upside down.

Meanwhile, I’m thrilled to be alive. All the things that made me love my life before are still just as valid and I do believe I’ve got another 10 to 15 years of being healthy, getting around and enjoying life. We shall see.

The only additional thought that this whole episode brings to mind is that I should get together a living will. I thought about it before, but figured I had lots of time so I put it off. But maybe I don’t have lots of time so I should probably go ahead and arrange ahead of time how my remains will be disposed of and who’s willing to take responsibility. It’s quite a mess to just pop off and leave friends to deal with all the details.




Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Happy Drunks



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moto Mayhem III.

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

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

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

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

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


Kampot, Cambodia

Festivals and Such

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kampot, Cambodia

Strange September



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



China – USA – Cambodia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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