China

China – USA – Cambodia

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development

Wishful Thinking – Cambo Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Kampot, Cambodia

Safe and Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Uncategorized

Elections 2017 – Cambodia, UK, France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Kampot, Cambodia

Moto Mayhem, Riding the Rails… more

 

Moto Mayhem, Kampot’s semi-annual funky-bike drag race, took place at the end of April. It was a blast, as the estimated 200 hundred attendees would attest. Races were divided into three categories 50cc Chalys, 100 cc Daelims and 110cc Honda Wins and such. Newer bikes were excluded to keep the contests fair and anything over 110 was deemed to be too fast and getting into the possibilities of accidents and danger. Didn’t want to get too serious about it, it was just for fun. There was only one mishap which caused no injury. All dragsters were required to wear helmets.

Last time it was held outside of town with few spectators who were inclined to attend. This time the organizers got the bright idea to ask about using our Olympic stadium. With a concrete track, a viewing stand and location in the heart of town, it was the perfect spot. It took a bit of negotiating and convincing to get the authorities behind it, going all the way to the top gun to get approval, but in the end they realized it was going to be harmless enjoyment. It was put together by an all volunteer crew.

A 100 meter section of the track was reserved for the race and all the proceeds from the one dollar registration fee for dragsters – about $60 – was dedicated to purchase building materials to improve the space. Great trade-off. It was actually only the second time I’d been in the space and the first in daylight since I came to Kampot nine years ago, and I was impressed, they really are trying to make something worthy of it. In addition to the running track there’s a football pitch, which is somewhat scruffy to date, and a basketball court, so the city is committed to improve it.

There’s always the fear that they’ll sell it off for development and build something new far out of town. That’s exactly what the big timers in Phnom Penh talk about doing to its Olympic stadium. ‘It’s’ too valuable to be used for sports’ they say. Sure, that’s exactly what the capital needs: an Olympic stadium, the only public space outside of the riverside, turned into condos and malls, but that’s how people with money think and, I expect, many people in government too.

The Daelim class was won by a woman who’s married to a westerner. Four of the sixty racers were women. Curiously, she was approached by local bigwigs and told she shouldn’t be competing in that kind of race or hanging out with foreigners. Knowing her, I’m sure she told them – in a respectful way – to fuck off. And the winner’s time? 100 meters in 9.7 seconds, the same as an Olympic athlete.

The only drawback that I heard mention was that it took too long; it started at 1pm and finished at 5. There were only 2 racers at a time, the organizers thinking more would be potentially dangerous so it took a long time to go through the list. There were lots of curious locals and it seems likely a lot more people, both local and expat, will want to partake in the future so it may start to take too long and adjustments have to be made.

The weather for much of April was very unusual with frequent rains and, in some places in Cambodia, low temperatures. Whereas April in Kampot usually sees temperatures above 35C – 95F – and as high as 37, it rarely went above 32 or 33. And instead of severe drought, we had rain fall in 9 days in the first half of the month with one day of 77mm: That is an exceptional amount for any season. Now as I write in the beginning of May the temperatures are more normal, 36 lately. Kampot being near the sea, which serves as a modifying influence, never gets as hot or as cold as the interior of the country. Now in mid May, we’re having rain or at least heavy clouds almost every day, more like September, height of the rainy season, than May

On a related note: A sewage outfall in the north of Phnom Penh got so nasty recently that the many people living in houseboats who fish farmed from them were forced to flee by it’s rankness and the death of their fish. A government spokesperson said the fish deaths had nothing to do with the sewage, but was a result of global warming. Yeah, sure. Besides the fact that temperatures recently have been below average, climate change wouldn’t change conditions from one day to the next.

Sewage is generally thought of as toilet water, but in Cambodia very little of that goes into the sewers. Almost every house has it’s own septic tank. If you’re in Cambodia very long you’ll see funky old tanker trucks roaming around; they’re pumping out septic tanks. Some of the older houses have no tanks and some owners don’t empty their tanks in a timely manner, so it slows into the sewers, but except for that relatively small amount, there’s no shit in the sewers, it’s almost exclusively gray water – wash water – and rainwater. In America it’s all mixed together and sent off to a sewage treatment plant, even though gray water makes up more than 90% of the total. In a sense that is not an efficient way to organize waste water processing, since there’s no reason whatever that rainwater needs to go through the same complex process that toilet water does. Gray water can easily be processed in a plant if necessary, but the best, most ecological way is to filter it through wetlands, they do a great job of cleansing that wash water. Of course that takes up a lot of space.

The problem in America is the high cost of duplicating pipes and the difficulty in leaving sewage treatment to the individual. In Cambodia it seems to be no problem.

As usual after Khmer New Year in the middle of the month there was a precipitous drop in travelers. Some bars will always have some customers, but most are really slow. In this part of the world you have to make your money in high season and hope you can break even when the customer base fizzles out.

I finally got a chance to take the train. I hardly go anywhere anymore, so when the chance came I had to ride the rails. I’ve always loved trains and have even taken Amtrak across America – a 3 day trip – more than once. Amtrak’s a luxurious ride, but slow and lumbering. It does go up to 80mph – 130kph – but on a 3000 mile trip, it still feels sluggish and endless. A high speed train could do the trip in 10 to 12 hours.

The train from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, with stops in Kampot and Takeo, is hardly luxurious, but it’s a fine trip nonetheless. And while it does take 7 hours, the extra time is well spent. Kampot to PP takes 5 hours and since it takes two hours from S-ville to KP, it leaves at a leisurely 9am from KP, which fits right in with my dislike of early morning departures. You can bring your bicycle for an extra dollar, moto for two dollars, even a car, but not from Kampot.

The train I took was on a Sunday, it had four passenger cars and was mostly empty.

You could lay down and take a nap if you had a mind to it since some of the cars have (somewhat strange) lengthwise seating.

That makes it a bit awkward to look out the window, something I always want to do. On trains gazing out the window is far superior to road gazing since on the train you mostly see beautiful unabridged countryside rather than roadside trash, referring to both buildings and pure garbage.

Still with the empty car it was not a problem turning sideways to look out. The one car with more normal transverse seating was uncomfortable and also had suspension problems and bounced around a lot so I opted for the longitudinal. The cars are very clean and well-maintained, the toilets impressive, they were spotless, spacious – never seen one so big on a train – and spiffed out with brass fittings.

None of the seating was very comfortable, but would only be a problem in a crowded train. Besides you get to walk around, you’re not stuck in a seat with only small breaks to exercise your legs and move your bum. When you get tired of the air-con, you can open the car door and, while holding firmly on to the handrails of course, hang out the doorway and breathe hot fresh air while the countryside rolls by. I noticed unused stations along the way, and certainly the train should stop in Kep.

I was disappointed in the state of the tracks. They were fine as far as being straight and level, there was no getting tossed back and forth, but often the sections were not welded together. It’s brand new track so they were just being cheap and saving money by only bolting them together. When they’re not welded you get the clickity clack sound and with each clack a jerking or vibration. Otherwise the ride would’ve been smooth and perfect: certainly, magnitudes better than a bus ride.

The train rolled into Phnom Penh at 2pm, right on time. They give themselves lots of leeway: there’s a 20 minute break at Takeo for food; we were holed up on a siding for about 15 minutes – with only a single track, one train has to wait while the other passes by; it also moved at a snails pace once it got near the city. And good news: trains are now running every day, though on weekdays they operate in only one direction.

In fact that was the second time I took the train here. The last time was in 2002: A world of difference for sure. The train pulled into Kampot station at about 1pm, six hours after leaving Sihanoukville. I didn’t see any passenger cars so I went back to the ticket office and was told there were only boxcars on this line. The Battambang line still had passenger cars. After an hour lunch break and shuffling back and forth for I don’t know what reason, the train took off at 2pm.

The car I chose had a stack of poles upon which people were sitting, there were also several hammocks strung up. A local guy next to me asked where my hammock was… he was clairvoyant, I always carried my hammock with me back then. When I pulled out the hammock a woman said one dollar. I looked askance; could that be? She then said niyeah laing, literally speak fun. It turned out to be a lot more comfortable in a hammock than a real seat would’ve been let alone sitting on top of a stack of poles. Though maximum speed was 25kph, it mostly trudged along at 15kph. Still even at that slow pace the car bucked and bounced quite fiercely at times, making the hammock a perfect ride since it evened out that jostling.

At one station people had to move aside as 100kg sacks of salt were loaded on which were more comfortable to sit on than the poles. And at one point, with all the crew at the ready, while the train was moving, the logs were quickly, almost frantically, shoved out the boxcar door. We chugged into Phnom Penh at 11pm, a 9 hour trip for 175kms. It was an experience, all right, but I prefer the new incarnation.

Both lines shut down in 2003 and the new tracks were supposed to have been finished in 2008 or 2009, but it took until 2013 for the new tracks to be ready, the ballast wasn’t properly laid the first time and quite a bit of remedial work needed to be done. Freight trains were running for 3 years until the new passenger service was inaugurated.

In mid may it was announced that China is proposing to build new rail lines from the capital to Seam Reap and the Vietnam border as well as a high-speed train to Sihanoukville. I’m not sure if the traffic to S-ville would warrant the extreme cost of high speed, but whatever, any improvement is welcome. The question is what the Chinese will extract in compensation. Refurbishing the old lines cost $180 million and the right-of-way was already there. I expect that building those lines new would’ve cost several times as much. Trains are the most efficient way to travel, especially if powered with electricity.

Kampot radio is on the air. It’s now only on the internet – kampotradio.com – eventually maybe it’ll also be broadcast on FM. It’s mostly music now provided by Darryl who’s put the whole thing together, but people are quickly picking up time slots for talking and/or DJing. Yours truly is doing a daily weather report – I’m Stan the weatherman here in Kampot – which will expand from strictly weather to include more topics but mostly related to climate, I’m hoping for a call-in show, but that part is not ready yet.

An amazing thing happened recently on Kampot’s riverfront. I’ve been complaining right along about cars parking in the riverside park, then about a week ago they all, with a few rare exceptions, began parking on the curb where they belong. It’s more than just a problem for walking and enjoying the riverside, heavy vehicles wreck the paving tiles and are hard on the tree roots. I checked around but saw no signs. Then talking to a friend I discovered that the police had come by and told everyone not to park there. The surprising part is how almost everyone knew that prohibition without any signs. Regardless it’s a very welcome change: it was getting uncomfortable, and sometimes difficult to walk there.

A final note about the old bridge. It’s usable but not great for pedestrians. The old sections have narrow sidewalks, the new sections that replaced the bombed-out part have none so you’re dodging traffic, or I should say, traffic is dodging you… not a pleasant experience. It wouldn’t be that difficult and not even that expensive to hang a pedestrian walkway off one side of the bridge. In addition to serving people who need it for transportation, lots of people would go there just for the view. It would be a tourist attraction.

 

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Kampot, Cambodia

Speed Bumps Are Dangerous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

International Village, Kampot

 

About 5 kms out of Kampot towards Sihanoukville is an area informally dubbed International Village. In Khmer circles it’s called Ghost Thief – Khmaut Jaio – probably not a good name for a newly created ‘village’ of westerners. I put the village in quotes because it I usually associate that term with a place that includes a core of houses close together whereas there they’re all spread out over a large area. I guess there are about 50 westerners scattered in 3 or 4 square kilometers, almost all living in newly built houses, many quite unique and special. Land originally sold there just a few years ago for $5 or $6 per meter. Now it ranges between $12 and $20 though if you’re patient and keep your eyes open, plots can still be found in the general area for $6 to $8.

It’s an indicator of how many expats are settling down here. The international moniker is especially poignant since the expat community includes so many different nationalities. One night at Neil’s Irish bar I counted 10 nationalities out of about 15 patrons. There were the usual suspects from America, UK, Ireland and Australia; also represented was Germany, Netherlands and Belgium and then a few outliers like people from Finland, Hungary and Uruguay. If you look at a week’s patrons then add France, Italy, New Zealand, Israel, Jordan, S. Africa and recently a guy from Lithuania stopped by… and I’m probably forgetting some.

It’s a totally different experience from back home where everybody is just a good old fashioned American. Sure I love my friends back there, friends of a lifetime, but it’s really a pleasure to be able to relate to, in fact, actually create a community of the world, escapees from the dull and mundane lives we’d be living back there.

It’s also a great pleasure to be in a place where people don’t separate by age: everybody can be friends here. I’ve gotten so used to that, the only time I notice or realize how old I am is when I look in a mirror or see a picture of myself amongst my friends. I can go to hear music and dance and not feel out of place even though I’m 40 or 50 years older than the vast majority of people around me.

Lots of people wind up going back to their home countries, but the majority are doing it temporarily to make enough cash to be able to come back and stay awhile. Some are fortunate to be able to teach or earn good wages in tech fields and the really lucky ones do tech work for western wages remotely from Cambodia. The really, really lucky ones have pensions or money in the bank, though there are pitfalls for some in not having enough to do.

It’s just so easy and cheap to drink or do weed, some people forget there are other things in life and sometimes they do the harder drugs so nonchalantly, without considering the consequences, they sail on through the mortal barrier and bring tragedy to their friends and families. As I’ve said before, everybody has a right to their own poison, but really, it’s stupid, negligent and disrespectful to those around you to kill yourself over no damn good reason. A broken heart when you’re only 30 years old?

It is possible to stay here on local hospitality wages, but it’s a very frugal lifestyle. Sure you get to hang around a cool easy place to live – Rough Guides recently did a survey of the friendliest places to travel and Cambodia was by far the first choice. Well, that’s why we’re here, facilitated greatly by ease of obtaining long term visas, of course. The simple beauty and warmth of the place easily compensates for low wages for some. And sets back the need to return to and make the dough. According to our local immigration cop there are 700 foreigners, including Chinese, living in Kampot. It does take them a little while to catch up with newcomers – though they’re very likely to find you in the end – so you can probably add another 100 or so.

One fascinating evolution here is the number of women expats. Even 5 or 6 years ago men outnumbered women about 10 to 1. Men travel easier, they’re less vulnerable and have fewer worries about being taken advantage of, but the times are changing. Today I wouldn’t call it even, but I’d guess at least 30% are women. That gives the town a whole new vibe, it feels very different from a few years ago. The women seem to be developing a special camaraderie and solidarity. I haven’t been around the country much lately so I can’t say what’s happening elsewhere. The comfort they feel here in Kampot may be partly an effect of not having any girlie bars. Whatever, it feels good having a more balanced population.

I finally got to check out the new night market near my house. First thing you encounter when you go in is a shallow wading pool for kids and there were 30 or 40 little buggers screaming and yelling and having a great time. (Digression: There are no free or low cost swimming pools in Kampot or anywhere that I’m aware of in Cambodia. Development needs to be more than bricks and mortar, it also needs to include facilities that enhance lifestyle. Sure, if you have the money to pay for pool time, you can always find a place, but the role of government is to improve the life of all citizens, not leave access up to the private sector to provide for only those with the wherewithal.)

The booths are very nicely designed but only half were occupied and really, it’s just the same old clothes and stuff you find all over: nothing new and not much that’s interesting. There’s a big stage for music events, but as I walked past in front of it while recorded music was happening I had to block my ears from the excessive decibels. Not a problem for most locals and I’m sure they enjoy the local bands. There’s a large seating area to serve the food booths, which also were only half occupied, which fronts on a wide beach. The market stretches more than 100 meters from River Road to the river in a long narrow design. They have about 40 meters of riverfront where kids were also having a good time playing in the sand. Overall the market is nicely done, but it’s in an out-of-the-way location and seeing sparse attendance and lots of empty stalls at this time of year doesn’t auger well for its success. Time will tell.

It’s middle of March and high season is winding down. There’s still quite a few people around but not like January or February. Nowhere near enough to keep all the bars and especially the new ones occupied. After Khmer New Year in the middle of April, tourism takes a dive. A friend who owns a restaurant on Phnom Penh’s riverside that caters almost exclusively to visitors said after ten years being there, his slowest month was always June. When that’s combined with expats who make regular runs back home to enjoy northern summers, it gets really quiet around here between April 15 and July when there’s a small uptick from people who live in northern countries who get there vacations during the summer break.

After that two month July-August mini-high season we descend into wet season in September and October when lots of establishments don’t even bother to open. With 90% of people here on motorbikes there’s a big incentive to stay home on rainy nights.

Meanwhile there’s lots of music happening now. Almost every night there’s a regular event, some nights more than one. I know, living in the capital or S-ville that’s not a big deal, but for our little burg, a real pleasure. And admittedly, one of the good things about being a tourist town. We expats could never support so much music on our own. Some of my friends think Kampot is too boutiquey, they prefer Koh Kong, but you miss out on variety of food and entertainment living in a backwater like KK. Sure, we’re all worried about what it may become with an influx of people, but for now all is good.

The musicians who’ve been here a while are getting much better, like Andy, for instance who plays around a lot who’ve I not yet mentioned, but some of the new ones are very impressive. First there’s Kat, who has been around, but who I didn’t see much in till recently. Don’t know if I wasn’t hearing her properly or she’s just improved a lot. She alternates between ukulele and guitar. She writes almost all her music and is quite a storyteller. With a slight nasal twang and a heartfelt delivery she’s the essence of cleverly cute or cutesily clever; however way you look at it, she reaches my soft spot.

There’s Howard (he actually has a nearly unpronounceable Scandinavian name) who plays a strong 12 string guitar with a powerful voice to back it up. One piece he does is a medley of Neil Young songs, starting with Heart of Gold and seamlessly segueing into Rockin the Free World and back. He sounds a bit like Young, but much stronger. A real asset to the music scene here.

There’s Luna, who’s just recently arrived, who provides a big change of pace. She plays a jazzy keyboard to back up a very strong voice with all original songs that she calls melancholy, though I would add moody, introspective, torchy to describe them. She’s only 18, which duly impressed me, so I expect her to become very well known as she improves her sound.

However in a panoply of musical precious gems, Cristina takes the crown. She brings tears to my eyes, a musical friend said she gives him goosebumps. She strongly reminds me of Billie Holiday with a lilting voice that’s effortlessly suspended somewhere in the stratosphere. Her depth, inflections, purity of tone are devastating. And when she needs to at crucial moments in the song, packs the power of an Aretha and the raw, gutsy, raspy energy of a Janis. Absolutely a singer to watch because she has the potential to make it big.

Speaking of music, a few words about acoustics. For some bar owners music is like an afterthought. It’s there in the background and they don’t give it much attention. For me it’s an important part of pubbing it. I’ve got lots of music on my hard drive, but I never want to listen at home, there it’s only quiet that I crave. But by the evening it’s just the opposite, I’m starved for good tunes and the energy and vibes memories that they often conjure up. Therefore I’m going to gravitate at night to where the sound quality is good.

I can enjoy all kinds of music so with few exceptions that’s not a problem and can tolerate more that I don’t especially like, but I can’t abide by motherfucker music. You know, Ho, ho, ho, ho, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, m-fucker, etc, etc, etc. Drives me crazy. Lots of times locals will play that stuff not realizing how gross and disgusting the words are. If you play more than one Ho tune, I’ll ask politely for you to change it, otherwise I’m outta there.

If your seek to draw customers in with enjoyable music and quality sound, then acoustics is all important. No matter how good the sound system, if the acoustics in the room are bad, it’ll sound tinny, echoey, scratchy, cloudy, the sound imprecise and garbled. That happens when the room is all hard or reflective surfaces like concrete, ceramic and glass. Good acoustics requires soft absorbent surfaces like cloth, tapestry, carpet, straw and to a certain extent wood. Good acoustics is pure sound. You can hang materials from the walls and ceiling, or hang specially made acoustic panels from the ceiling, anything to soften the sound and give it depth. There was a new very expensive concert hall built a while back, maybe in the 60s or 70s, with terrible acoustics. After that debacle, the architectural and engineering communities put a lot of effort into understanding acoustics.

Cruise boats are back with new rules about maximum numbers and sufficient lifejackets. They’re lots of fun. The beauty of a river run in Kampot is that the current minimal level of development on the river makes it a beautiful natural cruise and with Bokor mountain in the background a stunning view. It won’t stay that way for long since new venues are opening up on the river all the time, but for now really pleasant.

Pop-ups are popping up all over the place. Pop-up is not a word we use in America, so I was a bit confused at first, to us it’s just a mobile restaurant or food stand. The most prominent of our pop-ups is Butz’s reincarnation of Wunderbar, a successful restaurant on the Kampot scene for 5 or 6 years. Working out of a mobile restaurant, the menu is very basic, though the food is equal quality. He’s set up on the sidewalk of the park strip opposite the old market, (which really should be called the new old market or something to that effect, because it’s anything but old). He’s got a few folding tables with accompanying plastic chairs on the sidewalk and always has customers.

Next to him, though he sometimes sets up on the riverside park, we have Yuki with his sushi rolls and home brew ales and wheat beer, it’s really good stuff. We was set up at his house before, but it was in an odd location, so there’s lots more people to sell to now. The beer is excellent and the sushi authentic. Zeke’s got a pop-up serving nachos and tacos. Peter, the Belgian baker brings his pop-up to the river 5 mornings a week where you can get his fresh breads including tasty multigrains and an array of pastries.

It’s a good life.

 

 

 

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