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, Uncategorized

Bugger II – Kampot

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Phnom Penh, Uncategorized

Phnom Penh Traffic

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Pot-pourri

 

Down Home Entrepreneuring
In the last couple years there’s been a spate of expats opening businesses serving niche markets for the expat crowd. Some are firmly established and mainstreaming by stocking the local markets. Others you might characterize as itinerant, or maybe you’d say makeshift, operating from small carts they park around the old market.

The most visible is Kampot Krisp Company run by Warren, which is doing hand made potato chips (I know you Brits say crisps, but think how hard it is to say that, and what’s more, Do French fries really look like chips?) seasoned with Kampot pepper and sea salt. They’re sometimes a bit too salty for my taste and could be a little thicker, but otherwise excellent quality and as good as any chips on the market. They’ve also got a cool commercial level package. Jean-Baptiste’s Kampot Delights is producing and distributing to the markets a pure, natural peanut butter that contains only peanuts, palm sugar and salt. He started out with only peanuts and salt, adding the palm sugar later. I was disappointed by the superfluous sugar, but I still buy it. Next time you buy commercial peanut butter, take a look first at the frightening list of ingredients. By the way, I just discovered the way to keep natural PB from separating is to keep it in the fridge… after all these years.

Both the above have a list of ingredients, but here in Cambo you can get away without including it, at least for now. So you have Helen doing several varieties of cookies – chocolate chip, oatmeal, cinnamon and lots more – without telling us what’s in them. With her cookies I don’t mind, since I doubt if she includes anything I wouldn’t approve of.

You can also sell foodstuffs without proper kitchen inspections, also at least for now. Good thing since our major Khmer bakery has dingy walls that haven’t been painted in decades… an American inspector would have a heart attack. But lucky for us they’re producing a whole wheat baguette. Meanwhile our French bakery, which bakes some exceptional pastries, has no whole wheat breads available. They partly make up for the deficiency by having thick breads with loads of pumpkin and sesame seeds. If you’re like me and think that white bread, even the best made, is still a bit deficient, then we now have Patrick, a Belgian baker doing multigrain light and dark breads which he sells from the back of a three wheel truck that he parks near the front of the old market.

We’ve also got Kampot cider and though it’s actually made in Sihanoukville, it probably sounds a lot better to say Kampot cider. It’s strong and good tasting and I’d sometimes pay the extra price over beer except that it’s more than 7% alcohol, which only means I get drunk faster and have to go home earlier: as you can imagine, not my preferred outcome.

Then we have Evo who’s got a drinks cart identical to the ones that locals use that he sells cocktails from which he parks on the curb at the far end of the market and sometimes other locations. He provides those really short stools for his customers to sit on. James has a falafel, kebab joint on the old bridge road. He rents sidewalk space and does everything from a food cart, though it’s somewhat upscale.

On the river at the end of the strip closest to the old bridge we have Chen’s place, though he calls it Milly’s after his dog. Though he’s not an expat I’m including him here because he started out with a tiny hole-in-the-wall 6 seat, outdoor bar, which was later expanded, he hires mostly expats and often vies for the busiest bar in town. He plays music from the nineties on up which I like to listen to as a break from the tunes I’ve listened to all my life. He mostly has a younger crowd, but I’m almost always seeing people I know there.

Just across the street there’s a blank wall on a full block vacant lot. One of the most popular cane juice spots in town is on the corner. It’s been around for a long time, but starting a year or two ago a line of Khmer food stalls selling packaged noodle soups, fruit shakes, fried meat and fish balls, fried rice and such has sprung up. About 10 stalls up is Diego’s Italian restaurant. The décor is down home funky – weathered wooden bench seating, for instance – but the food is excellent, prices are very reasonable and most nights people are hanging around waiting for a seat.

There are also quite a few expats around town working in the bars or in their own establishments. As opposed to Phnom Penh where expats working at bars is unusual, people coming to visit from there are taken aback at the sight of that happening here. And the thing about it is locals and expats working side by side earn the same money, most often $10 per shift. It’s good money for Khmer, just barely doable for expats, many of whom are working to supplement their income or bank account rather than depending on it for their entire sustenance. For some it’s a means to stretch out their time here. Others are working just to get out and meet people. Still, as mentioned a few months back, it’s possible to rent small but livable spaces for as little as $40 month, and with beer at most places $1 per can, it’s still an easy life. It’s important to note that land prices and rentals are rising fast but if you are around for a while you can still pick up on good deals.

There are also lots of new restaurants and bars opening, including a Brass Monkey to add to our Monkey Republic and Mad Monkey. Okay, where’s the Monkey Business? The old standards are doing good: Rusty Keyhole and Wunderbar always have customers.

Fish Market
The Fish Market, which sits on stilts on the river across from the old market, is finally open. It’s been practically two years in the making, with long gaps of inactivity at the site. Whatever the cost, and it certainly wasn’t cheap, it’s been well worth the wait: it’s stunning, gorgeous, beautifully done. It was taken largely back to the original building finished in the 1920s, which required removing the previous total uglification remodel all the way down to the structure. That remodel made it into two stories with a blank windowless front.

After a period of vacancy it became Alaska disco in about 2008. It was extremely loud, even when I had my regulation ear plugs in, and beers were $3. It was very popular for a while in spite of those costly beers. Most customers – 80 to 90% – were young Khmer guys who’d nurse a single beer for hours. After about a year or so the business died and the customers moved over to Dragon Club across the river which is still going.

The finished Fish Market included recreating the three part rounded roof, which should be good for the acoustics. In addition to the restaurant, in which many of the meals are reasonably priced, it’ll provide a venue for live music. It’ll start with local acts, but in time national and international bands will be booked. It’s a big space and will be good for at least 100 people to dance on a beautiful, smooth tile floor, perfect for cool moves, as opposed to bouncing and jumping around. I’ll even bring out my dancing shoes. They aren’t ideal, since that requires leather soles, but still workable.

I Love Kampot River
The fourth annual I Love Kampot River event was held on Sunday March 13. A tent and stage was set up for the festivities and Monday was for the river clean-up in which hundreds of school kids are taken out on fishing boats to clean up the river bank. It’ll certainly make a difference in the long run to have local kids thinking about keeping the place tidy. Those kinds of changes, unfortunately, do not come overnight. The event included music by the Kampot Playboys, a band I’ve heard a hundred times but never tire of. Every time is so dynamic, driving, energetic, it just sweeps you up into it’s rhythm. The event also included a fashion show of kids wearing clothes made from recycled materials.

I’m often struck by how sharp and well-behaved most of our expat and mixed kids are. They seem so much more together than the typical cranky, demanding, often-spoiled-brats in the West. And it’s a pleasure to have events where beer is served and kids can roam freely. Back in Oregon beer can only be served or drunk behind a fence, lest the kiddies be exposed to the evils of beer drinking.

Unfortunately a sound problem kept the event from starting on time and caused the truncation of the show since the city required the music be over by 9pm. This I find to be baffling since 9 is very early to stop a show, besides the proliferation of weddings that are much louder and often go to practically midnight.

The only discordant note of the day was that beer was sold in non-biodegradable plastic cups. Almost all plastic today is made of petroleum based materials, which, though they lose their integrity relatively quickly, nonetheless hang around polluting the environment for millennia. That’s another one of those externalized costs. You sell them cheap today and let generations to come pay the costs of the environmental degradation they cause. Plastics can be made just as easily from plant based materials like corn or hemp and would cost no more than petroleum based plastics if the latter had to pay their externalized costs. You can toss biodegradable plastics on the ground and in a couple of months they have melted into the environment, with no ill effects whatever.

The Southern Train Line
After lamenting the absence of passenger train service on the southern line between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville in last month’s article it was recently announced that service is to begin on April 9, just in time for the Khmer New Year’s holiday. Freight trains have been running since 2013, so the absence of passenger service didn’t make sense. The trip will take about 8 1/2 hours and cost $7 with two stops in Takeo and Kampot, the only 2 intermediate stations ready for service. One reason it will take so long (as the rumor mill has it) is because the ballast, the rock foundation of the track, was poorly constructed so that speeds are limited to 30 to 40 kph, though it was intended to be an 80 kph line. The other reason is unsafe road crossings that add two hours to running time. Still, in spite of the extra time, trains are far superior in comfort and offer a much better view of the countryside – countryside as opposed to roadside businesses and trash – so the service is certain to be popular. They also have a charter service where you can rent a whole train.

Police Are Out in Force
I spoke too quickly last month about the police not staking out city locations for their checkpoints. They’re now all over the place at all times of the day and up to 11pm. They now get 70% of the fine so they are diligent about upholding the law and you get a receipt. I just recently paid a 25,000 riel – $6.25 – fine for not wearing my seatbelt.

Drunken Moto Cowboys.
Recently a friend almost killed himself driving drunk. Had he been successful, so to speak, he would’ve been the 7th person I’ve known since I came here 14 years ago who had done just that. Another friend came within a whisker of dying. He and a friend had been out cruising the bars in Phnom Penh on his big bike. They got back to the guest house alright, but the friend insisted on going back out with him driving. Not long later he had killed himself and put my friend in the hospital for three months. Aside from the obvious message of Don’t Drive Drunk, don’t drive like a teenage cowboy trying to show off, act like an adult and drive as slowly and as safely as you can muster. Finally, get a decent helmet. In the recent case the friend had a cheap helmet that (probably) saved his life, but it wasn’t good enough to avoid brain damage and a brain operation.

 

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Economics, Uncategorized

Negative Interest – Cashless Society.

 

Japan has moved to negative interest. Bank depositors now have to pay the bank to hold their money, the idea being that people will be more likely to spend and boost the economy if they have to pay to keep their money in the bank. It’s the latest desperate gamble to bring the Japanese economy out of the doldrums it’s been wandering aimlessly in for the past two decades at least. Aimlessly, at least, in the eyes of a world that thinks the end-all and be-all of society is to grow economically endlessly.

It’s also stupid and wrong on a host of levels. They’ve already amassed the world’s largest sovereign debt in the service of stimulating the economy. The enabler of that profligacy is the Japanese people who are willing to loan money to the government for 0.1%. Deficit spending is pure Keynesian economics. The government spends when the economy is low and saves when it’s going good, that’s the theory at least. Unfortunately, the savings half never happens.

Besides, what if a country doesn’t need to grow? And what if the Japanese people decide to cash out, stop lending to the government?

If there was any country in the world that fits into the category of not needing to grow it’d be Japan. In the first place, it’s population is declining and aging. And the elderly are much less likely to consume than young people. Secondly, it today is only 39% food self-sufficient so fewer people would be an advantage on that score.

In its mania for growth, in which it is merely following the world economic consensus, it built $100 million bridges with deficit spending to islands with only a few residents. Anything to prime the pump.

And now negative interest when people should always be encouraged to save, it’s an unalloyed good, at least it was deemed so in the past. Many European central banks too have gone to negative rates forcing banks to pay to park their money. That’s on top of vast sums of quantitative easing, a fancy phrase for printing money. Europe too is not growing. Except for the UK which has seen a lot of immigration, populations are stable. There’s no reason for an old, rich, stable country with quality infrastructure to grow, unless it’s to correct imbalances or tool up for renewable energy and other needs for the future.

Europe also has a target of 2% inflation, again supposedly encouraging growth, but once again screwing savers and the common people. Why do you want prices to go up in economies that are already expensive? With populations that are stable? It’s the great evil of deflation rearing its ugly head. Deflation slows economies down, causing surpluses and bringing prices down. Inflation makes you feel like you better spend now since your money will be worth less and borrow because what you want will cost more later.

At a recent G20 meeting of finance ministers from 20 large developed and developing economies, it was realized (finally) that super low interest rates and large scale printing of money were not doing the economic trick and the supposed recovery was in jeopardy, but they insisted that the fundamentals were strong, an absurd conclusion considering the desperate measures undertaken.

The third leg of their consensus is structural reform, (in their words: innovative, flexible and resilient) which essentially means privatize everything, crush unions, end all subsidies to the poor, free trade that allows wealthy countries to dominate low income countries and open capital markets to bring in rampant speculation by the superrich. For the people it means the gig economy where people work on contract for low wages, no benefits, often part time or on call with no job guarantees. When you come down to it the establishment has no clue, there’s nothing in their basket of policies that will make a damn bit of difference, except to make everything worse.

The whole concept is screwed. It’s been amply proven over the last 30 years that transferring vast sums of money from the 99% to the 1% cannot possibly provide a healthy economy. It’s overweighed at the top where people can’t spend very much because they already have everything. They do spend some on property, but much of that goes to favored places like San Francisco or London where average houses now go for a million bucks, crowding out everybody who isn’t rich.

The only good economy the US enjoyed in those years was during the dot com bubble of the 90s and the ninja (no income, no job, no assets) mortgage loans bubble that followed in 2007 creating the worst economic times since the great depression in the 1930s. And yet, according to the world’s economic consensus, booms and busts are inevitable. Of course they are right: Within their paradigm it has to happen that way, but that’s not the only way to organize societies. If the world’s developed economies can print money to feed the banksters, they can also print it to build infrastructure and finance the transition to a clean fossil-free world. They can also establish job creating agencies like the depression era CCC – Civilian Conservation Corps or the WPA – Works Progress Administration to make sure everyone who wants to work can have a job.

Here’s where the cashless society comes into the discussion. People in the gig economy often need additional sources of income to survive, which often would include getting paid cash working the underground economy or personal efforts like garage sales or doing yard work for a friend. Without cash you could still do that work, but only for barter. Accepting payment would automatically require registering in the system which also means paying taxes and being led. Governments might also want to make it difficult to register to receive payments in order to deter small operators and keep all means of profit at the top.

The problem revolves around the need to work on the books to be able to buy anything in any store. This is a perfect set-up for the elite. No matter how lousy the jobs they provide the lower classes, the people will have no choice but take them. They’d be locked in like slaves. Add negative interest and you are forcing people to place all their money in the banks and then making them pay to keep it there. As well as nicking them every time they purchase anything or pay a bill.

A bankster’s wet dream, and the story of the Beast in the bible. It states very clearly in Revelations that when the Beast takes over people will not be able to buy or sell anything without his mark on their foreheads.

Only barter would keep that system from absolute and total control and tyranny. But really, how many people could live on barter alone? Unless you can live almost totally off the land, you’re screwed.

The cashless push has already started with governments talking about ceasing the use of large denomination notes and/or limiting the amount of cash purchases: In Italy and France €1000 is the largest cash purchase allowed, though I’m not sure how that would be policed.

Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about that in Cambodia, at least not for the foreseeable future, but it’s a frightening prospect nonetheless.

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Uncategorized

Rainy Daze Kampot

For a month now it’s been cloudy nearly every day. When it hasn’t been raining it’s been threatening. There’ve been lots of light rains, but when it’s really come down, it’s been the proverbial cats and dogs. One morning in the space of three or four hours we got 135mm or 5 1/2 inches of rain, the most I’ve ever seen accumulated at one time in the seven years I’ve had my $5 plastic rain gauge. Before that we had a five day period in early July with 250mm or 10 inches, it just didn’t want to stop.

More recently Phnom Penh received 103mm in one storm and the authorities called it the most ever recorded. Doesn’t sound right. Maybe it was because of years of poor recordkeeping: hard to say. We get quite a bit more rain than the capital, so maybe ours was also a record. We have a weather station in Kampot, but it isn’t functional, so I’ve become Stan the Weatherman by using my cheap (well $80) weather station, reports from Weather Underground and info from friends even more into it than I am. When the website has accurately predicted precipitation, it’s often way underestimated the amount. It’s not hard to understand the discrepancy when Phu Quok, out in the Gulf of Thailand, is our nearest weather station.

The cool, moist, rainy weather has been great, only had to get out the garden hoses a couple times in a month. Of course cool is somewhat relative: anything below 80F – 27C – is considered cool here, whereas that would be a hot day in Seattle or Dublin. But we love it, especially compared to the hot days of spring, which this year never seemed to end. Kampot which generally doesn’t go above 33 to 35C was up to 36 and 37C every day, with hardly any thunderstorms to offer short time respite from the scorchers.

Still, at this point in my life I sure wouldn’t trade it for cold, shivery, icy weather. Didn’t mind it all in the past, but relaxed and easy is my geezerhood mantra and since I’m not put off by really hot weather, I’ve got no complaints.

The rainy weather does however put a crimp in our nightlife with some people not even bothering to open their bars and you sometimes have to wander around just to find one that has any customers. But June, not noted for being inclement, was also tough that way. The mini-high season – July, August – when a lot of people have their vacations back in cold country brings some energy, but then we have September and October when it really does rain nearly every day and plumbs the depths of dark, wet and uninviting and it can get pretty lonely out there looking for some action. (Right after I wrote the above rainy weather thoughts, it turned sunny and dry, but since September is nigh, it’ll all ring true soon enough.)

The expat community is expanding rapidly which should make a difference in our nightlife in the off season. There’s lots of changes and what some would call upgrading. Blissful Guest House, the first run by expats in Kampot, breathed its last recently after 10 years. It had gone seedy and downhill and struggled to survive the last couple years. It’s being reincarnated as a Monkey Republic, a chain that has several places around the region. We already have a Mad Monkey, What’s next, Monkey Business? Monkey Fun House? On the other hand, a friend, who’s familiar with their operation says Monkey Republic has done some cool stuff architecturally, so maybe it’ll be a plus after all.

The other big transition has been from Bodhi Villa to Banyan Tree. As Bodhi, which is on the opposite side of the river and about a kilometer from town, it attracted a crowd every Friday night for several years for live music followed by an all night disco. Sometimes you’d be there at 9 or 10 and there’d be a few people milling about, but by 11 or so droves of people would seemingly come out of the woodwork: where’d they all come from? I once left at about 10 thinking nothing was happening only to discover later that the dance floor was jammed at midnight. All that took place in a space that was atrociously laid out for the purpose. It had a tiny bar; a rickety dance floor built on stilts over the water that would tremble a bit too much when only one dancer got a little too excited, let alone when lots of people were bouncing up and down; a cramped stage that was actually below the level of the dance floor, and well, you get the picture.

As Banyan Tree there’s been a complete transformation. There’s now a proper stage that sits above a large dance floor capable of accommodating 80 to 100 people and a new bar about 12 meters long in a curved shape that’s made of beautiful 10 centimeter thick wood planks. If you’re going to cut down an old tree, it might as well go into something beautiful and lasting. A large area around the bar is covered but the dance floor is in the open. There aren’t that many people around when it’s raining hard, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

The kick-off party was memorable. There were 150 to 200 people there at any one time and just to show you where Kampot is going, I barely knew 10% or 20% of them. The crowds came in spite of them not getting their roadside sign together. As many times as I’ve been there – I’m embarrassed to say – I drove right by the first time. The sign was evidently not important. Once things get rolling and high season kicks in I expect they’ll be booking bands from around the country and beyond.

Meanwhile, Hugh who ran Bodhi for 10 years is working on remodeling and reincarnating Kampot’s old fish market originally built in the 1920s. It sits on stilts over the river across from the old, now rebuilt, market. From its classy art deco design with an arched roof it was turned into a rectangular, two story, blank façade, ugly by default building. In it’s new life it’ll house a large restaurant during the day and live music venue at night. There’ll be room for at least a hundred people to dance on a brand new dance floor. I expect there’ll be music most nights and similar to Banyan Tree, acts from around the country will be appearing.

We now have regular music events four nights a week. It starts out with live sets at the Magic Sponge on Wednesday nights. Oddly enough the building, whose design can only be described as whimsical, predated the name. In fact, even more oddly, it previously was an Aceleda bank. Madi bar on the river takes over on Thursday nights with the Kampot Playboys and other acts. After the live music it morphs into an all night disco. Next comes the new Banyan Tree, which also goes disco to the morning and finally Naga House, which is not far from Banyan Tree, which mostly serves up all night disco. I know, not much compared to the ‘Big Cities’ but certainly enough to keep us busy.

Lots of venues are changing hands, much is in flux. Unfortunately we lost Light Box, a unique space that brought great artistically oriented events to Kampot in its one year of existence. The culprit was a sub lessee, despised by all, who never passed up an opportunity to lie, cheat and steal. A new place has appeared called Open Space, which may be able to take up some of the slack, but it’s a lot smaller and won’t be the same.

The Garden’s been going through those changes, hopefully to emerge even better than before. It’s a very large outdoor space in the heart of old town easily accommodating more than a hundred people. It’ll be great for music events, though situated amongst residential buildings they’ll have to keep the volume down after a reasonable hour.

O’Neil’s Irish bar, an almost always busy watering hole, goes through an unlikely transition around 11pm. It starts out in the early evening with the gray brigade… mostly old farts hangin’ out shootin’ the shit. When they leave it quiets down somewhat till later when it seems every Spanish speaker within 100 kilometers shows up. Sometimes it’s all Spanish speakers… they probably come to Kampot at least partly just to hang out at Neil’s with their fellows. This is a direct result of having two South American late night bartenders in a row. The first from Argentina, lately from Uruguay. O’Neil’s Spanrish bar.

New international restaurants have been springing up like weeds. A friend went to Tortulia, a new Portuguese restaurant, and called it ridiculously good, though other reports have been so so. Then there’s Turkish, Spanish, French of course, Italian, German, New Orleans Cajun, Indian, Chinese, Thai, basic Brit or American pub food and of course lots of good Khmer eats.

Then there’s Ecran movie house and hand pulled Chinese noodle and dumpling shop (an unlikely combination, but not everything is supposed to make sense). Ecran has a full size 4 meter by 3 meter screen that plays quite a few indie and artsy films with a few blockbusters mixed in. They also have 3 private rooms to catch the movie of your choice. As one who never watches movies on less than a big screen at a real theater (the only exception being stuck on an airplane for 12 hours at a time when I’m truly desperate for distraction) it’s been a real treat.

Lots of new infrastructure improvements are happening. The pond, our one real park, is getting a new lease on life. The new design is a bit too formal for my taste, but it will make it a more pleasant place to be and will certainly see a lot more people using it. The town has been paving roads in concrete. The early ones were quite sloppily done and quite bumpy, but the new River road north of the new bridge is being done to professional quality (Okay, we’ll see about that one) and for Cambodia very smooth. It’s using rebar and is about 20 cm thick, enough I expect to handle the big trucks that’ll be running it. Concrete is much better as a pavement than asphalt or bitumen since it lasts much longer. The best asphalt surface barely lasts a year of punishing by those giant overloaded rock trucks.

And further, the last thing you need in a hot climate is black roads that absorb heat. Big cities are heat islands. The large amount of black tar streets and a landscape consisting almost entirely of buildings – Phnom Penh has hardly any green or watery space left – absorbs heat and keeps the city much hotter than the surrounding countryside, especially at night.

Once again, I end this Kampot update with concern for the future. So far so good; the new people coming in are only adding to the town’s livability, but there’s always that question of when it’ll turn into too much and the experience starts going downhill. Nothing to do but wait that one out.

On another topic: So much for the Culture of Dialog.
Just a couple months ago I wrote that Cambo doesn’t have political prisoners. Well the PM didn’t take long at all to prove me wrong on that one. Just recently, eleven opposition activists were given 20 or 7 year terms for ‘insurrection’. Those convictions were rammed through the court system in just a day or two without even the plaintiffs having their lawyers present. And that a year after the incident in question.

The charges stemmed from the opposition’s demonstrations against the government in 2014. At a certain point the government barricaded ‘Freedom Park’ near Wat Phnom which was supposed to be the one place in the city where demos were always allowed. While the demonstrators were trying to gain entrance to the park, the city sent what they call district security guards, who are known for their brutality, to keep the demos away. While the guards do police work, they aren’t officially police or even have police training, all of which gives the city some deniability as to their responsibility for their brutish ways. At some point, having had enough, the protesters fought back and injured quite a few guards, who were outnumbered.

While I totally support the protesters, who should never be treated so harshly just for exercising their democratic rights, I can see the government’s wish to use the courts to charge them. We all know, in America as well as here in Cambo, that only the police have a ‘right’ to use brutality. There’re lots of statutes they could’ve been charged under, assault for instance, that would’ve been subjected to relatively minor sentences, but insurrection is a bit far-fetched. The only possible silver lining is that, if the past is any guide, those very long sentences will at some point be reduced.

The former governor of Bavet city who shot into a crowd of striking garment factory workers injuring three of them, finally turned himself in and received a 1 1/2 year sentence. He was on the run for 3 years, in which the authorities seemingly didn’t even make a half-hearted attempt to apprehend him. Meanwhile several people protesting a land grab were given the same sentence for blocking a public road. When questioned the presiding judge said the two crimes were indeed equal. Cambodian justice.

Finally, the PM recently announced that the date of the next general election was going to be in July 2018 after all. It had supposedly been moved forward from July to February ’18 as part of his compromise with the opposition that ended their protests. When questioned by the press and opposition he said they hadn’t gotten it in writing so they must be stupid.

Just before deadline for this article, the PM has called Rainsy a leader of the thieves because his intent is allegedly to destabilize the country. This was in reference to the opposition’s demonstrations trying to demarcate the border with Vietnam. Years ago he called Hun Sen a traitor on that matter, now he’s just trying to push the government to settle the border issue and has caused the PM a little discomfort on that matter.

Protesters of all stripes are lately being very harshly dealt with, alienating large numbers of potential voters as a consequence. He seems to long for the Chinese model, but this is Cambodia and imperfect as its democracy is, the people still have a say… we hope.
Cambostan

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Master and Five Men

I haven’t written about beer for a couple years so it must be time. I drink 4 to 7 brews a night, only drinking less when I’ve got a serious hangover from the night before or on those rare occasions when I feel I must stay home just on a matter of principle. Those nights could mean drinking nothing if the reason is a hangover or one or two if it’s just me hanging out at home. That doesn’t happen more than once a week since it’s excruciatingly boring.

The purpose of drinking is not to get drunk and/or stupid and/or loud and/or bloviating and annoying. I just want to relax and chill, hang out with friends and debate all the world’s problems and a lot of other shit not quite as momentous.

Khmer have a saying, Drink for drunk, if not why drink? Truthfully, I’m not fond of spending most of the night at a perfectly fun party with my head hanging over the toilet bowl. After the first couple of upchucks it was dry heaves for three more hours. One of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. It was my 40th birthday party and haven’t done it in the 35 years since then, though I’ve occasionally come close.

But even six or seven leaves me feeling washed out, weak and headachy the next day so really, is it too much? Probably is, at my age at least, but it’s so enjoyable and besides, since I live alone and rarely see people during the day, it’s my one time to get out and relate. And what better lubrication for a good time than a little alcohol to loosen you up and shed some inhibitions. There are drawbacks, like when someone has had a couple too many and their talk turns into repetitive blather and they’re so intent on proclaiming their inanities to the wider world that they won’t even let you get a reasonable word in edgewise. It’s a small price to pay and there’s always another bar where you can still hold a conversation.

A friend insists anyone who drinks more than two or three a day is an alcoholic. Of course, I had to beg to differ, but really where is the dividing line? Is my waking up nearly every morning a bit under the weather an indicator? Actually, you’ve got to add smoking a considerable amount of weed in that equation. I don’t do either until the late afternoon or early evening, so am I addicted to either? I doubt it, but it sure would be difficult to contemplate life without them. Some of my friends have been forced to quit drinking and their lives haven’t ended, so it wouldn’t be the end of all things good… but still, some wind up not going out to pubs because they feel uncomfortable and there goes a good part of their social life. Their reluctance is understandable since hanging out with a bunch of drunks or near drunks must be painful when you’re not drinking yourself.

To me an alcoholic is someone who starts drinking in the morning. They really suffer without their escape from reality, whereas I’m just bored without my nighttime imbibing. When you look around a Kampot bar you see happy people with big fat smiles. Of course, I’m generalizing, there’re lots of exceptions, but the overall picture is clear. Now my friend who stops at two knows how to smile, he’s a successful and happy guy, but it’s somewhat constrained, not really free. He will dispute that assessment vehemently, but that’s what I see. Maybe he’s physically healthier that way, but sometimes the relaxation you get from drinking overweighs any physical negative.

That’s possibly why studies have consistently shown that people who drink moderately – two drinks a day – live longer than teetotalers. Is there something in the alcohol itself that is healthier or is it the loosening up factor? I can’t say but tend towards the latter. The world is a crazy place, whatever it takes to navigate the insanity can be a plus. Whatever you need to alleviate tension and placate the demons within is a good move, within reason, of course. If you find yourself crashed out, unconscious on the sidewalk at 3am then you do have some work to do. You can laugh it off, you have to laugh it off, but it’s not a pretty place to be.

Then again maybe you have a death wish, I’ve seen it enough times, and you can’t stop until you blow off this life. Everybody has a right to their own poison. In addition, there’s the old farts who don’t have much to do or anything to do with their time so they drink because they’re bored silly.

All that said, sociability in Cambodia often revolves around the bar scene, in large measure because it’s so cheap to drink here. Also, at least in my experience, we don’t visit others’ homes very much so our socializing happens in the bars. Back in the US, I’d be home most nights in a pall of disinterest, drinking two or three beers and once or twice a week visiting friends. How could that compare to life in Cambo?

However an ill wind blows, or may soon blow on our cherished easy-going bar scene. The government is drafting a new law on alcohol prompted by overwhelming support of the people: more than 90% of Cambodians surveyed wanted tougher laws on drink. One provision raises taxes on alcohol. Considering we have some of the lowest taxes on alcohol (and tobacco) in the world, higher taxes was going to be inevitable. Hopefully they won’t raise it all that much.

A second part raises drinking age to 21. Almost everywhere in the world outside the US has a lower drinking age. (Belgium offers middle school kids 1% beer for lunch.) It’s absurd and unworkable and probably will turn into one of those laws which is so rankly unsuitable that it gets scrapped by consensus. Happens all the time in Cambo. Next, equally incredible is banning alcohol sales between midnight and 6am. The law allows for special permits to sell after 12 but that’ll only give police a new source of tea money. Otherwise it’ll be totally ignored. Most places that stay open late are already in entertainment zones where drinking late is not going to be a problem, outside those areas almost every drinking establishment closes early.

There’ll be restrictions on advertising. The scope of that part is yet to be determined. As far as I’m concerned one of the best things the country could do for its ambiance is to ban those cheesy, tacky, lighted beer advertising signs that adorn most bars in the country. I once thought of taking pictures of Street 136, a street of bars, but when I looked I realized all you’d see would be beer signs. The most depressing thing about it is that once you provide the artwork a unique sign of the same dimensions only cost about $50. Besides, 80% of the sign area is beer advertising or Khmer lettering, the English part is very small and minor.

There will also be a tightening of drink driving laws. Can’t fault them for that, drunk driving is one of the biggest causes of accidents here. All in all, these provisions were to be expected, but let’s hope the authorities take a reasonable route and not try to kill off the golden goose. Entertainment is one of the country’s most important draws.

All the above said, I’m always on the lookout for a new and interesting beer; it’s very difficult for me to drink the same beer day after day even when it’s good. Two years ago I discovered City beer, not only was it really tasty, but also super cheap at $7.50 a case. In a blind taste test reported then, City stout and ABC came tops of 5 stout beers which included Black Panther, Angkor and Guinness. I’ve seen the City logo on a juice can since but the beer seems to have disappeared… even then it was only available in one place in Kampot.

My latest discovery is Master beer. Every time I open the first can – after drinking very much your taste buds loose their sharpness – I can’t help remarking how good it is. It’s fresh, bubbly and full of flavor without a hint of bitterness or harshness, and like City it’s super cheap at $8 case.

It’s nothing like Klang which is strong with a lot of flavor but comes off as an assault on your palate or Anchor draft which tastes like dishwater. Let me include a disclaimer here: There’s no accounting for taste, what thrills me may disgust you. Even if most people hate it, it still may be your favorite, so don’t take offense if I lambaste your choice in brews… you just can’t help it. I do have an edge on the average person as far as knowing quality, stemming from many years in Portland, America’s foremost craft brewing hotspot, a more discerning tongue from trying many beers for the purpose of rating them, and blind tasting trials which don’t lie and eliminate personal prejudices.

Master has been around for several years but previously had a different logo. There are quite a few obscure beers like Cheers, Phnom Penh, Crown, Ganzberg, Black Cat, which are good enough to drink, but not remarkable enough to really care about. Not like Master which I prefer to all the other cheap beers .

While the beer is quality, the people brewing it are clearly country rubes lacking any hint of sophistication. The can’s self-promotion says it all. For instance, the words, Italy’s number 1 beer, (quite fanciful obviously) appears twice except one time it’s spelled Itali’s… One of the ad phrases says, “Brewed and canned under Germany technology word wide standard. Ingredient, Bali’s malt, special malt, Germany’s hops rice, (hops rice? what the hell is that?) pure water, yest. Master beer, Italy’s quality beer. 28 days” (and what could 28 days refer to?). The brewery doesn’t even have a name, it says, Beer brewery, (village, district) Kampong Chhnang Province. In another blurb, it says, “Master beer. Producing beer for the world”, and lists 13 countries including Canada, Australia, France, Italy (of course, being Itali’s number 1 beer) Singapore, Japan and China. Wow! Covers the world! Who would’ve thunk it.

Like City beer which also came from the far out rural provinces, it’s really surprising how such good brews can come out of the boonies. That points to strong stirrings of entrepreneurship currently driving Cambodia. Lots of goods are being made here now boosted by very loose legislation and regulation. This too seems to be a target of the government which is drafting a food safety law. Like tightening up on alcohol, it’s inevitable; businesses are selling foodstuffs without listing ingredients in kitchens that are not up to any standard of cleanliness, so I guess we should be happy to see changes.

Then there’s Five Men, a locally produced craft beer in Sihanoukville. I got one of the last bottles available in Kampot. The fellow serving it said it was a bit touchy so he poured for me… it definitely made a lot of suds in spite of his effort. I couldn’t wait till they subsided so I took a bit of the foam. I was really impressed, it was an excellent craft brew. Now the difference between a good plebian beer and a craft beer is in the care taken in the process and quality ingredients that give a rich taste but also come with a lot more calories. There are about 130 calories in a 330ml cheap beer, 240 in a craft beer.

Moreover it was surprisingly tasty for a pilsner. If you were to rate types of beer based on hardiness and oomph, you’d start with pilsner, then lager, ale, bitter, porter and stout, in that order, so I was taken aback at how much flavor it had. I got one of the last bottles because they stopped making them. Seems like they had a problem with exploding bottles, in one case a shard hitting an artery in a guy’s leg. It’d be very hard to stock and sell it under those circumstances. Latest I’ve heard is they may be moving to Kampot and trying to sell in something besides bottles, like towers maybe. I can’t see how that would work. Canning would also be a possibility but that’s a much bigger operation and not really appropriate for a craft beer. My advice would be to figure out why the bottles were exploding – can’t be that difficult – change the name and start over because it was really excellent, better than Kingdom, which I also liked, which seems to have disappeared from Kampot.

I hope they get it together, but if not there’re sure to be others out there just chomping at the bit to take up the challenge of making Cambodia a center of beer culture; that is, if the government doesn’t try to put a damper on the trade with onerous restrictions. From outback Master to expat Five Men good changes are bound to come to local libations for my favorite pastime and the elixir of life.

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