Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

Five Rooms a Day



According to a friend, five new hotel rooms are opening every day in Kampot. He himself was responsible for two days. Other people I know are doing the same, so the little burg is on a roll. It’s December and lots of people are around, a far cry from September and October when the town was deserted. Still the question is whether the boom is on track or ahead of itself, expanding more rapidly than the trade warrants. It’s still all cool, all groovy and mostly on the side of improvement, rather than downhill sliding.

There’s a new $2 billion plus development announced for south of town with villas, condos, a marina… you know top-of-the-line, except a little research shows the outfit proposing it is a telephone number and not much else. Still, a ghastly prospect, but the comfortable class need homes too, don’t they? Wouldn’t want them to sleep on the street.

Right near by, about 10 km from town is the new $18 million passenger port under construction. According to the Asian Development Bank which is funding it, it’ll serve about 1000 passengers a day between Kampot and Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island, other ports in Cambodia – Koh Rong, Sihanoukville, Koh Kong – and Thai islands. In 2014 Phu Quoc had 128,000 international tourists and while I couldn’t find the numbers, I’m sure the vast majority arrived by plane. Maybe 100 per day currently arrive by ferry, so not much to justify that big port. However, Vietnam is predicting a tripling of tourist arrivals by 2020, which seems quite fanciful to me, but anyway lets triple that number to 300. Maybe also just having the port there will be an attraction and that by itself will add a few hundred more travelers. Any kind of sea travel will be more expensive than other modes, but it ought to be a fun trip taking the boat to Snooky. Still looks like a boondoggle to me, but I’ve been wrong before, so we shall see.

As part of the trend towards ‘big ideas’ a large and interestingly done night market is soon to open north of town past the new bridge. It’ll have more than 100 merchandise booths and 60 food booths on a long piece of land that reaches all the way to the river. It’s done well, looks good, so might be successful, though it seems out of place there all by itself. It’s very close to my place which is on a road perpendicular to river road so once they repair my road there may be some bit of traffic going by. When I first moved in 9 years ago – 9 years in the same rental house! – the road was a backwater with wetlands, including two large lotus ponds, dominating. Now almost all the water features have gone and it’s nowhere near as pleasant, however being a one block road, it’s never likely to have really busy. Thankfully so because I’ve created a wonderful garden there over the years and can’t move even if I wanted… though the world being as crazy as it is, it’s folly to plan too far ahead.

In addition the Kampot nurses school which backs up to my place has just constructed a large three story structure which replaced grand old eucalyptus trees. In place of those tall trees swaying in the breeze I now see lots of classrooms overlooking my place.

The cruise boats are still not running since the temporary halt was ordered after 4 people died on a severely overcrowded vessel about a month ago. They’re still trying to work out some new safety rules, I guess. That’s sort of how things happen in Cambo. Everything is loose, freewheeling and unregulated until a problem surfaces that requires government intervention.

In a similar case, a longtime and well-liked Phnom Penh expat met an untimely death as part of a Mekong boat cruise because of lax safety rules. The way they work it there when there are several boats needing to dock they stack them up side by side and you jump from one to the other to get off. Unfortunately the gap, evidently, was too wide and he fell in. Contrary to my first impression he wasn’t a drinker, so that wasn’t a factor in his death, though I’m sure most people do have a few beers as part of a cruise. That event probably won’t bring changes to the rules, but a few more might shake the government dragon into action.

Another serious nighttime accident has happened on the riverside in the vicinity of Bokor Mt. Lodge stemming from speeding, drunkenness, both or just plain negligence. It was the fourth one in two years. As I understand it, a large car pulling out into traffic was hit by a motorbike, giving the bike rider a cracked skull with some of his brains hanging out of it. The guy in the car probably pulled out without looking first or if he had looked the biker must’ve been coming along too fast to stop in time. And of course no helmet. While I noticed almost everyone wearing a helmet in Phnom Penh last time I was there, here it’s only about 20 or 30% that do.

Part of the problem is the ease of speeding at night, especially from the south where there is no congestion and clear sailing for more than a kilometer, at which time you hit a lot of congestion in a small area. Once you are going fast it’s hard to slow down, even if you are aware of the danger, but also there’re a lot of people who run through town like a bullet with cars sometimes going more than 100 kph and motorbikes as fast as they will go. River road is planned to be a major road from Kep past the new port and through to Teuk Chhou upstream near the dam. In it’s new parts it’s wide, but right in town it bottlenecks. Western city planners would tackle the problem with ‘traffic calming’ concepts. In this case one solution would be rumble strips on the road like the one’s used to denote schools. That’s one way to get people to slow down. Speed bumps could be a problem, since if you’re not aware of them and you are going very fast, there could be a serious result. As the number of businesses increases on the strip, along with increased congestion, more casualties are certain.

Traffic calming is also needed to tamp down on early evening cruising by young people. Eighty percent of the traffic on riverside at that time is just youth going back and forth with a lot of speeding and dicey moves for showing off. At one point they actually blocked off part of the road to prevent cruising, but it caused more hassles than it solved.

Madi Bar on the river was closed for renovations last August but the new owner of the building didn’t want it there so it was closed permanently. It was the place to go on Thursday nights for live music and dancing for more than 5 years and is sorely missed by this old boogie-woogie man. Chiet, the owner and lead singer for the Kampot Playboys will probably do something similar at his new place, Orchid G.H. on what we call guest house street since there’re about 8 on a short stretch of road.

Karma Traders, a new guest house north of town past the railroad tracks, attracts 50 to 100 people on music nights… just opened and crowded already. Moi Tiet near the river gets a lot of people on its music nights. Now that it’s high season, there are lots of people around so a lot more exciting than back in the rainy months when the place was often dead. Billabong GH has a Sunday afternoon session with music at 5 pm. They’ve got a pool so good fun on a lazy Sunday. A small Sunday afternoon market with music from several people was held at the Pond GH. Lots of people showed up, tots to geezers, and a good time was had by all.

We had quite a bit of rain here in mid-December, so much on one day that it felt just like September. What a contrast to last year, when it hardly rained in November and then almost nothing till May. Last year was an El Nino year, a warming of the Pacific meaning we tend to get dry weather. Now we are in a mild La Nina, a cooling of the Pacific so plenty of moisture is about right. We get some rain every month including December, but 100 mm in three days was a bit much. Nice thing about the rain now is that it keeps the temperatures way down.

There are rumblings out of the government that they’re working on a new law related to alcohol consumption. Supposedly it’ll take in the questions of drinking age, taxes and advertising.

Can you imagine a drinking age of 21 in Cambodia? Sometimes laws should be aspirational, but really, it makes no sense to have laws that are unrealistic and unenforceable, not to mention stupid. Like in America where at 18 you can join the army and be sent off to war to kill people and blow things up, dance buck naked in a strip bar and stick your pussy right in a guy’s face, be a star athlete making millions of dollars, but you can’t have a beer until you’re 21. You can be inundated with a barrage of ads on TV extolling the virtues of drinking – Wow look at all those happy people drinking beer! – but you can only watch from the sidelines and long for the day you’re old enough to drink. By preventing, or trying to prevent, young people from drinking, you only encourage them to binge whenever they have the chance.

Increasing taxes on alcoholic beverages seems like a good idea, but it too has many pitfalls. First it falls most heavily on the poorest people. There are a lot of dangers and problems associated with drinking, but it’s as old as civilization because it’s also an elixir that eases the tensions in life, helps you forget your troubles and loosens you up to enjoy yourself and have a good time. Sure, it has to be done in moderation lest it damages you physically. You also have to be wary of addiction, but increasing the price only makes poor people who need it to keep their psychological balance poorer and sometimes causes them to turn to very cheap unregulated homemade alcohol like the tainted rice wine that recently killed 15 people and hospitalized another 100 in a provincial village.

The other factor mitigating against raising taxes on alcohol is tourism and the expat community. People come to Cambodia for many reasons but it sure helps that beer is so cheap, especially since restaurant food here is a bit more expensive than our neighbors. How many places will you find a mug of beer for a dollar and even less during happy hours?

It makes a difference to this expat – and I’m sure many others – that I can go out nearly every night and have a few beers without breaking the bank. A lot of our social life – mine for sure – revolves around the bars. I spend most of my days by myself so I greatly look forward to hanging out at night and shooting the shit with friends and travelers. The contrast to how my life would be back in the states couldn’t be more stark since there I’d be spending five or six nights at home drinking by myself being bored silly, like I am now when I stay home even though it’s only once or twice a week.

The third part of the proposed new legislation is advertising. While I consider beery delights close to essential to a good life, it’s never something that should be encouraged. People don’t need to be convinced by slick advertising to drink. If anything the opposite should be true, public service ads should be warning of drinking to excess. Alcohol advertising is especially pernicious here since it’s practically ubiquitous. Everywhere you go there are large, ultra-tacky, ugly as sin, lighted beer signs. In places where bars are concentrated that’s all you see. In bar strips in Thailand, every one has unique and sometimes artistic signage, in Cambo, crap, because all you see is beer advertising, there’s no art whatever. Bar owners do it because the signs are free, but they don’t do much to advertise the bar because the bar’s name is actually very small. After you provide the art, a sign of equal size only costs fifty dollars. It’s good to know what beer the place has on tap, but that can easily be done without a big ugly sign.

The other thing that needs to go are pull tab cans. Once again drinking should not in any way be encouraged, but also those tabs are a nuisance and are sharp enough to cut easily. They’re also not often recycled. They don’t weigh much but hundreds of millions start to add up. They were banned in Oregon in 1973 because people were getting their feet cut up walking on the beach. Just before Cambodia beer was introduced five years ago the government announced a ban on them, but Cambo beer had started with them and it was new, and I’m sure the Khmer owner is an influential man, so the government folded and now there’re lots of beers doing the same thing. Education is key to minimizing damage from alcohol, but it’d be somewhat futile if people are bombarded with seductive advertising at the same time.

On a political front, Kem Sokha, second in command but de facto leader of the opposition since Sam Rainsy is in exile, was pardoned by the PM in a surprise move. Five members of  Ad hoc, an advocacy group now in prison are also supposed to be pardoned. Their imprisonment is widely perceived to be politically motivated.

The PM generally has strategic motives behind these moves, but it’s hard to figure why he’d do this now, though he can always find a reason to throw Sokha back in the slammer, if he wants. His jailing and the others is based on the accusation of bribing his former mistress with $500 to deny the affair. The reasoning was that she needed the money since she was unable to work while so much bad energy was afoot.

For the investigation they brought in the Anti-corruption Unit as well as the police. Meanwhile the ACU had no interest in investigating a $500,000 bribe given to the Health minister by a bed net supplier. The ACU has succeeded in going after corruption in many instances, but impunity for certain of the well connected is clearly its failing. With elections coming up there could be turmoil, but regardless of the bad omens I’m hoping for calm and acceptance of the results whatever the outcome. I know, wishful thinking.



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.