Kampot, Cambodia

Speed Bumps Are Dangerous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia, renewable energy

Blazing Hot

 

 

Kampot’s feeling the heat. It’s been relentless: As I write this in the second week of May it’s 32C – 90F – at 7pm, at 1pm it was 38C, 100F . We even have a bit of an advantage in Kampot. Since our temperatures are moderated by being near a large body of water we don’t get as hot as the interior. Even so the sweat drips off of you; at times I can’t even keep my glasses on, they slide down my nose. It really takes it out of you, like merely trying to breathe after you’ve been out there in the sun walking or on bicycle. It bears down, saps your energy, makes all physical activity an effort. All that said it doesn’t matter all that much to me personally, I don’t let it affect my daily life. I don’t purposely wait until the heat of the day to go riding around town, but I wouldn’t hesitate if necessary, though I must admit, I don’t feel much like hiking in the mountains when the temperature’s really hot. For really strenuous activity it makes sense to let it cool off a little first.

 

Anyway, we all better get used to it, because the heat is only going to keep on breaking records. Every country in SE Asia (except Thailand which came close) has experienced its all time national heat record this hot season. In Cambodia it was 42.7 C in Preah Vihear. What’s more, large swaths of the area are seeing severe drought and not surprisingly, very high temperatures are a characteristic of drought, which means plants dry out that much faster.

 

This has not been good for my garden. Even drought tolerant plants, those who can survive for long periods of arid, sweltering days, really don’t like it. A cactus that can manage just fine at 40°C without rain for months, would much rather it be 25 with a little rain once or twice a week. For those plants not designed to deal with that kind of weather, they get really stressed, it’s a real chore trying to keep them irrigated and happy. Moreover, the only good times to water – early morning, late afternoon – the water pressure has been so low it sometimes comes out of my hoses as a limp trickle. It’d be okay at midnight if I could see what I was watering and wasn’t stumbling around because I’d smoked and drunk to my limit by then. I have four hoses for my little space to minimize having to drag them around.

 

Even under the best conditions I have so many plants, mostly in pots, it takes nearly an hour to get to everybody. When the pressure is low and the temperatures are through the roof, all I can do is keep them alive in a holding pattern. And besides all that, they much prefer rainwater, not only because it contains no chlorine residues and such but also because they are more thoroughly irrigated by the drip, drip, drip than a big dose all at once.

 

The only respite we had recently was 12mm of rain we received on two days in early May. Before that the last rain was end of February and minus a few scattered sprinkles, you have to go back to early December for any substantial precipitation. Now, in the middle of May clouds are building up and looking like they want to rain, and some places nearby actually have seen some precipitation, but not Kampot. The government has been bringing tanker trucks to supply water to some areas around town that’ve gone dead, dusty, dry.

 

Finally, starting on May 15 we’re beginning to get some ‘real’ rain – 25mm – with predictions of rain every day for a while. Phew! What a relief. And on the 16th a deluge; 80mm – more than 3 inches – in less than an hour. The government now says the drought is over and normal rains have begun. As deadline approaches a big storm predicted to dump 250mm in six days is headed our way.

 

In drought, one of the most likely and difficult outcomes of global warming, Cambodia (like my home state of Oregon in the US) has the ability to get through it easier than many places in the world. One great advantage is a relatively small population which puts less pressure on limited resources. Secondly we have a relatively wet environment to begin with – when it does rain, it really comes down. Both the above factors have limited the overuse of groundwater. Densely populated places and especially the arid ones will be in for rough times when the heavens stop dropping their loads. In many parts of India, for instance, groundwater is being mined so extensively that water tables in many places are receding by a meter or more a year, requiring ever deeper wells. In other words a lot more is being taken out than is being naturally replenished even in the best of times.

 

I’m also reminded of a picture I once saw taken in California’s San Joaquin Valley. It included a gauge which showed that the land had subsided by five or six meters. Essentially, with the groundwater removed the land had sunk and consequently it can no longer hold as much water as in the past. It was permanently damaged. At any rate, no matter the severity of drought here in Cambo, there should always be water down there; it should never go completely dry as will happen in many places. It may not be enough to flood rice paddies, but at least there’ll be something.

 

Meanwhile, world heat records are being broken with regularity and by jaw-dropping amounts. Each of the last twelve months has been the hottest ever recorded for its month and March was the hottest on record for any month based on divergence from the norm. Not just that, but the temperature was nearly .2°C above the next hottest. Those kinds of records are usually broken by .01°. In the recent Paris climate meeting it was decided that the previous goal of keeping warming to 2°C was too much, the world couldn’t handle it, that 1.5° was a safer, more urgent goal. Well, March did it. It was supposed to a goal for a decade or two in the future, but it’s already here.

 

One factor in the warming is called positive feedback loops. For instance, snow and ice are white and reflect most of the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere. When it melts and either dark water or rock is exposed, most is absorbed and thus further pushes the warming process. And since the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, the loss of ice is accelerating the changes. Last February the Iditarod sled dog race which starts in Anchorage Alaska, which is at 62°N, was unable to start without bringing in many truckloads of snow… first time ever.

 

As for making the changes in time to make a difference, the Paris conference had no binding commitments, only loose goals that the countries could follow if they wanted. So even while industrial powerhouse Germany on May 12 this year received 90% of its power from renewables – sun, wind, hydro and biomass – and Portugal recently went 4 1/2 days solely on renewable energy, many nations, including Cambodia, are pushing ahead with coal power. Sounds like a planetary death wish.

 

Trump, who might well be the next US president, has called climate change a hoax, and Clinton, the likely alternative (I’m still praying for Bernie) is a strong promoter of fracking. The fracking industry pushes the idea that natural gas, because it releases a lot less greenhouse gases than coal, is a good transition from the present to a fossil free future. Unfortunately, studies have shown that lots of methane is accidentally released in the fracking process. Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as CO2, but on a 20 year basis it’s 87 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, and even on a 100 year basis is still 30 times more potent.

 

If the TPP – Trans Pacific Partnership, covering 12 countries on the Pacific rim –  and TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and EU – were enacted, countries could no longer control the process. Industry would be given free reign to pollute and despoil to their heart’s content – all thanks to Obama and his corporate backers. And if a country refused to allow fracking it could be sued for lost potential profits by the industry.

 

Mr. O, who I like as a person, has reneged on almost every campaign promise he made that had to do with protecting the environment and the proletariat. In his first campaign he promised to renegotiate NAFTA, the trade pact between US, Canada and Mexico. He made no attempt to make good on that promise and instead has promoted the above trade pacts which NGOs refer to as NAFTA on steroids.

 

If I believed in conspiracy theories, I’d think he was the Manchurian Candidate. Remember, the movie was about a perfect candidate groomed by a foreign power to win an American election so they could use him to subvert the government to their own ends. For a long time I thought, if Obama’s the Man, who would be his controller? The CIA and Goldman Sachs would be a good starting point.

 

At any rate back here in Kampot we’re in the throes of low season and most places on most nights are pretty quiet. A few have shut down for a month or two. A long time owner of a restaurant on Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay that caters almost exclusively to tourists has said that in ten years of operation June was always his slowest month and we’re not even there yet. There’s a bit of an uptick in July and August, a mini-high season caused by people in the north who have their vacations in their summertime, but then we’re back in the depths in the rainy season in September and October.

 

It isn’t just the travelers who’ve disappeared. When you think about it and look around you also realize that lots of expats have also left for extended periods. It’s a time for many to go back to their home countries and take care of business when the weather is warm. For others, the rain or snow birds, they divide their time between Cambo and the West. Last time I was back in the states, I was there for 5 weeks and thought it was way too long. It was good to say hello to everybody, but my life and home is in Cambo.

 

An $80 million passenger boat terminal is being built with loans from the Asian Development Bank on the east side of Kampot river (actually it’s called a bay) about 6 kilometers south of town. In the process they’ve uglified the area by widening the shoreline road and clearing mangroves over a long stretch of it.

 

A year or two ago they built what myself and many others thought was going to be a passenger port for direct access to Phu Quoc across the river from town between the two bridges. It’s about right for boats with capacities of around 20 or so passengers. I do see boats there on occasion but it definitely hasn’t got an immigration post. The island is closer to Kampot than Ha Tien, the nearest Viet town, so it would certainly make sense to have direct boats going there. I’m guessing that port was built for about 100,000 to 200,000 dollars.

 

Now step back for a second and think about what kind of boats would need an 80 million dollar terminal. Ocean liners? The Queen Elizabeth? For little old Kampot? Ships carrying thousands of upper crust passengers docking in Kampot? All those pretentious people descending on our grungy, plebian little burg at one time? Maybe I’m missing something, but it sure looks like a gargantuan boondoggle to me.

 

On a very positive note, one of the businesspeople in town recently announced he was going to sell biodegradable take home packaging. Within a couple days and in spite of higher costs than petrochemical based plastics, more than 30 expat business owners signed on to the concept. I’ve also heard a similar movement is afoot in Phnom Penh. Most people don’t realize it but corn and other crops can be used to produce single-use cups and containers that are indistinguishable from the plastics we are now using, except, when tossed on the ground, they’ll literally melt into the environment in a few months instead of hanging around being a toxic hazard for thousands of years.

 

For sure a few dozen expat owned businesses using biodegradable packing isn’t going to make much of a dent in the mountains of non-bio plastics now being used and discarded here, but you have to start somewhere and who knows, maybe the idea will catch on and the government will step in to ban the evil stuff.

 

I’ve thought about what it would take to do my shopping in the local market without accepting plastic, but what would you do with meats? I doubt if waxed butcher paper would ever be economically feasible here. Banana leaves? Also seems like a hassle compared to plastic. I have a cloth bag to put the whole purchase in, but some type of container is going to be necessary for each separate item.

 

The current practice of many locals and some expats is to burn them along with yard waste. Bad idea. The noxious smell that burning plastic gives off is a clear indicator that it’s toxic to breathe in. Landfilling isn’t great either but far superior to burning. The burning of organic material isn’t that bad environmentally, though breathing lots of smoke of any kind is not benign. Most importantly, all burning exacerbates global warming. At any rate it’s much better to compost organics, especially here in the tropics where heavy rains leach most nutrients out of the soil.

 

Farmers burn crop waste because they think it improves the soil. The ash that’s leftover from burning does give a quick boost of potassium and phosphorus to the soil, but all the nitrogen and organic matter that could improve the soil’s tilth goes up in smoke. Burning is quick and easy and people like to watch a good fire, but it’s not the best way to go.

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Cambodia Politics and Development

Corruption and Other Indexes Rank Cambodia

 

There are four indexes I’ll be looking at in this article. World Happiness, Press Freedom, Ease of Doing Business and Corruption Perception. In all cases except one, Cambodia does poorly both on a world level and a local level. Government spokespeople always insist that the international community is treating Cambodia unfairly. Although it’s pretty much guaranteed that all governments will respond likewise, I do have some sympathy for the government’s position. In all cases, these indexes are based on impersonal and sometimes arbitrary guidelines which don’t represent feelings and reality on the ground.

The one where we are ahead on a regional level is Press Freedom. In 2014 only Indonesia and Thailand were ahead, but not by much. Considering the military coup in Thailand and it’s heavy repression of the press, it’s certain to be well below Cambodia for the 2015 survey. Strangely enough, in spite of besting nearly all of our neighbors, we still came in at 144 out of 180 countries surveyed. In fact, we’ve only gone downhill over the past decade since Cambodia’s rank in 2008 was 85, and may continue to do so, considering recent government actions.

We have recently seen murder of journalists. Internet speech is being repressed; for example, a student was jailed for 18 months for advocating a color revolution, which by its nature is a peaceful changeover. There are frequently ham-handed attempts by local officials to prevent perfectly legal gatherings: Cambodia’s UN representative for human rights was recently stopped from meeting indigenous leaders who are fighting against land grabs. Local commune police intervened supposedly because they didn’t have a permit for the meeting, but no permits are needed in such a case. Needless to say those regressive actions only further alienate common people.

On the other hand there are a few points in Cambodia’s favor. One is that the English press is allowed to operate unhindered. Another is that demonstrations happen almost on a daily basis, though often against the wishes of the government. The ones it likes don’t seem to need prior approval, but if it embarrasses the government or puts it in a bad light, they will do what they can to prevent or hamper their progress. It doesn’t seem to stop the protesters, they keep coming right back. Once again, the more the authorities intervene, the more they are disliked. Moreover, today without total control of the internet such as China’s Great Firewall, it’s near impossible for the government to prevent people hearing the news on social media.

Another interesting index is the UN’s World Happiness Report. Once again we are way down near the bottom at 140 out of 156 countries. As you would expect from a survey created by the elite establishment, three of the six factors that make up the index heavily favor developed economies. The first is per capita income. Well, certainly, people who are hungry or see no possibility of improvement in their futures are not going to be especially happy, but as most expats living in Cambodia can attest, most people here seem happier than the people back in our home countries. Moreover, given the extreme inequality present in the US today, the country’s high per capita income belies the fact that the majority are struggling to cover basic expenses and debts.

The second is social services. This one makes sense since it is comforting and reassuring knowing society is there to back you up in times of difficulty. Everybody can appreciate the feeling of security that comes with living in a benevolent society, but sometimes people who live day-to-day in uncertainty and depend on the largess of chance and serendipity, are more content, adaptable and trusting than those who are largely cared for.

The third is healthy life expectancy. Sure it’s great to be healthy in your dotage, but you’ll hardly be happy if you don’t have adequate money for the necessities of life. Or if you live in a social setting in which you feel isolated or without many friends.

The next three categories; freedom to make life choices, generosity and trust or the absence of corruption in daily life, were based on interviews. Cambodia comes out very well on the first two: amazingly, third in the world on freedom to make life choices and around number 20 in generosity. We’re obviously pretty low in the corruption category. The two where Cambo did well were clearly not enough to bring us out of the cellar.

But lets look a little closer. Haiti is a few rungs above Cambodia. It’s a country where a large number of people are still in temporary accommodations from the earthquake of 5 years ago. Instead of bringing in reconstruction teams after the quake, the UN brought in peacekeepers since of course those black Haitians couldn’t be trusted on their own. Some of the peacekeepers were from Nepal, a country where people casually spread their shit around; they especially like to do their dumps in streams. This resulted in 7000 Haitians dying of cholera and 200,000 being sickened in a population of only about 8 million. The UN of course refused to compensate for the malfeasance of its peacekeepers.

Raw sewage runs on the streets of the capital. This is in part because their politics is in total disarray so that little of importance or necessity gets done. In the last election there was a 20% turnout. The people have given up on politics because the person they want to run the country, who they’ve elected twice by very wide margins, is radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Unfortunately, he didn’t meet the standards of the conservative US establishment so America was instrumental in deposing him both times. Now I haven’t been to Haiti, so maybe Haitians really are a happy people in spite of their sorry condition, but compared to Cambodia? I don’t believe it.

How about Vietnam up at 96. Now we all know the Vietnamese are a strong, capable, industrious, take no prisoners type of people and have much to be admired in many ways, but you probably won’t find more than 1 out of 100 people who’ve been to both who would consider them happier than Cambodians.

For another example, Israel, astoundingly, flabbergastingly, is right near the top at number 11. Now here’s a country where its 20% Arab population are second class citizens living under ‘Old South’ type segregation if not total apartheid. For instance, according to Wikipedia, Arab schools receive far less per capita state funding than Jewish schools and there is a shortage of thousands of teachers and classrooms in Arab schools but not in Jewish schools. Israel keeps 4.5 million Palestinians under a brutal occupation in the West Bank and 1.8 million Gazans in what many refer to as an open air prison in which only enough food is allowed in to keep them alive but still hungry – around half the children in Gaza are malnourished. In a recent survey, 57% of Israelis want to expel, drive out, deport the 4.5 million Arabs in the West Bank to another country so they can steal their land and have it to themselves. Now tell me, can a people be truly happy when they are treating millions of fellow human beings in their midst like shit? Impossible.

As a happiness index, this survey falls very short, but thinking about it, it would make sense as a well-being index. While well-being – income, social services, long lifespan – might often indicate happiness (Denmark is number 1) our experience in Cambodia makes a mockery of this index as an indicator of happiness.

In the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index Cambodia comes out 135 out of 189 countries surveyed. This index measures regulations and policies that affect the ability to start a business. Of the 10 sub indices used, which include things like construction permits, export procedures, paying taxes, registering property, the only one that seems dodgy in Cambodia is enforcing contracts. Otherwise I don’t see why Cambo would rate so poorly. Once again, real life and facts on the ground, seem at odds with these arbitrary and impersonal statistics.

For one thing, Cambodia over the last decade has had one of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies. How would that be likely or possible in a place where it’s so difficult to start a business? Is it so desirable here that entrepreneurs would go through lots of hoops just to open a business here? For another, whatever relevance this index might have to medium or large businesses, it certainly doesn’t apply to small ones. Here in Kampot you can have a small establishment in operation before you even have a permit, though you wouldn’t be able to stay in business very long without obtaining the proper paperwork.

Finally there’s Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index. In 2014, not all that surprisingly, Cambodia ranked 156 out of 175 countries, worst of the Asean countries. As they explain in their intro and methodology, corruption is by its nature secretive and hard to measure so the best they can do is gauge perceptions. And the index only refers to dealings with the government, but there’s lot of corruption that doesn’t involve day-to-day interaction with the government.

Yes we all know that Cambodia is thoroughly corrupt: examples abound. An NGO recently announced that traffic jams of luxury vehicles in Phnom Penh made it difficult to raise money for Cambodia. If you add up the number of vehicles who either sport those elongated license plates, which represent a connection to the national legislature, or display government placards in their windshields, somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of all luxury vehicles are owned by government associated people. (BTW, a new Lexus SUV costs more than $200,000.)

Everybody knows, down to the lowliest peasant farmer, that the vast majority of those vehicles were not purchased with legitimate money since there’s no one in government, including the PM himself, who could afford even a Camry on their official incomes. Of course there may be some independently wealthy individuals in government, but why would they bother working for $300 or $400 per month if they’ve got tons of money in the bank? Altruism? Dedication to serving the Cambodian people?

Some time back the PM said that public servants should be proud of their vehicles. Maybe so, but they should at least hide their government connections instead of blatantly advertising their corruption.

One of the ways governments stay in power is through patronage. When you provide lots of jobs for your friends you create a loyal following. That probably accounts for Cambodia having 2000 generals in its military, four times as many as the US, with a military budget that is 200 times smaller.

If you want to secure a hard title for a property in Kampot, it’ll cost you a minimum of $1000 over the listed price, even for a property that’s worth only $5000 or $6000. If you complain about the excessive cost, whoever you’re negotiating with will say he has several people to share with. One of them undoubtedly is the bong tum, the head of the department, who lives in a four story castle-like villa.

Many parents have to pay as much as $3 per day to the teacher to send a child to school. When the immigration department came to check my passport, they asked for a tip. Okay, I thought, for a few dollars they’ll be my ‘friend’. Changes are afoot though, even if haltingly. The new traffic law which gives the police a share of traffic fines and the offender a receipt is a start towards more honesty.

The Anti-Corruption Unit, the ACU, regularly finds malfeasance amongst government officials, but they’re usually cases which are flagrant and always of people who’re not in favor with the administration. For instance, the minister responsible for purchasing bed nets was fingered by the NGO who pays for them for taking a half million dollars in bribes from the company that got the contract. Somehow, through an extremely convoluted explanation, the ACU determined that was not really corruption and declined to pursue charges against him, in spite of being a perfect, blatant, in-your-face, example of it.

On the other hand if you’re an opposition figure targeted by the government, the ACU will use the flimsiest excuse to investigate. The current example being Kem Sokha, second in leadership of the opposition CNRP. His phone was tapped and a conversation he had with a mistress was published. The ACU dove in and opened his file to see if he really had the money to buy the things he promised her. The ACU holds personal financial reports from each government official, but they are kept secret until there’s a reason to delve into them. So an illegal wiretap prompts an ACU search into his records over an affair, which is embarrassing, but totally his business. BTW, a ‘student’ group, all of which refuse to name their institutions, has been dogging Sokha over this issue. They’ve been allowed to march without permits, whereas people with legitimate grievances against the government are routinely prevented from marching.

The government’s actions against the opposition aren’t particularly surprising and definitely not unusual in politics, not in the region or the world. Who can forget Bill Clinton being impeached after getting trapped into lying about a blow job?

One notable thing can be said about corruption in Cambodia: it doesn’t seem to be hold back progress or be a detriment to government functioning. In contrast, take Brazil, for instance. A while back many people died there in a nightclub fire. News reports pointed out that the club was operating without a permit. There was actually a good reason it didn’t have one: a fellow interviewed on BBC said that it sometimes takes 5 years to get a permit, so most businesspeople don’t bother since nightclubs often don’t last that long.

And talking about corruption, it’s more than just interactions between citizens and government. Sometimes it takes a grand scale, like the current 1MDB (Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal in Malaysia. The corporation was created and is chaired by the prime minister Najib Razak. Trouble came to light after the corporation was found to be $11 billion in debt. In an investigation undertaken by the Wall Street Journal it was discovered that about $700 million – $681m in one transaction – was transferred from 1MDB to Razak’s private account. Later investigations have brought that figure up close to one billion. When confronted he claimed it was a gift from the Saudi royal family for campaign expenses(?) a claim disputed by the Saudi family itself.

And look at America, land of the free, home of the brave, bastion of free-world democracy where elections are regularly stolen. We just had a perfect example in the recent Massachusetts Democratic primary. All the precincts which had paper ballots that could be checked went for Sanders, all those with easily-tampered-with machines went for Clinton. I daresay, Cambodia’s elections are more honest than in many US states.

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

Kampot Update

 

Guy comes to town, likes it, wants to open a bar (don’t half the expats who come to Kampot want to own a bar?) but doesn’t know anybody, and doesn’t take the time make friends. He pays $1000 month for an average, smallish place on the river – because he doesn’t know the scene – and waits for customers to come. It’s high season (though some nights it’s been pretty slow) so a few travelers will wander in, but expats, the mainstay of most establishments, will be scarce since we regular punters already have lots of friends with bars. If he’d taken the time to know Kampot he’d’ve realized that there are only a handful of the dozens of bar-restaurants in town that could afford that rent and still make a profit. Oh well, it’s only money… and hopefully a learning experience.

Meanwhile, lots of new bars are opening, but discouragingly, in most new ones the actual bar is very poorly designed. Since I’ve been through this before I’ll be very, very brief: A bar top is not a counter top, there needs to be an overhang, a place to hang your elbows, for it to be comfortable. Otherwise, you’ve either got your knees hard up against the wall of the bar – trying to get close to it – or you’re sitting so far from it, it’s a reach to reach your drink. Either way, no way is it okay to design a bar that’s uncomfortable to sit at. Why torture your customers? Okay, I’ll admit it, I do patronize places with lousily designed bars at times, but I tend not to stay long since we fogeys need our comfort. Besides, being the ergonomics man I’m too aware of bar foibles to just pass it off. On the other hand, Cambodia is a place where rank amateurs can have a business, which is good, so I guess one has to accept amateurish bar design. It’s also really nice to have a foot rail and stools that are comfortable to sit on, but the overhang is number one.

One topic of bar/restaurant design I haven’t yet covered is lighting. Some people – fortunately not too many – put a lot of time and effort into creating a nice space and then light it with bare, overly bright, blaring and intense fluorescent bulbs. Firstly, a lot of people don’t know there’re two different types of basic bulbs: daylight and warm white. Daylight bulbs are harsh and unfriendly; warm whites are like incandescent bulbs, a soft orange-yellow color. They not only provide a more relaxed atmosphere, but people look better in soft warm light. They cost the same, everyplace that sells one also sells the other and they provide equal light intensity, so there’s never a reason to use daylight bulbs.

Another factor in lighting is placement. In a bar the only places that need good light are the bar itself, the separate tables and the drinks on display, everything else should be dim. Once again, people look better in low light, it hides their imperfections.

I often come across signs and menus that are counterproductive. You’ll see a big outdoor sign, not a beer sign but an original, but the actual name of the place is relatively small and designed with an exotic hard-to-read font. Artistry is fine, I can really appreciate the talent that goes in, but impact and legibility come first. Riding along at a moderate pace you should be able to see at a glance the name of the place, it should really stand out. You shouldn’t have to come nearly to a stop to try to read some silly font in very thin lettering. After you make it easy to see, knock yourself out, let your artistic side soar.

Same goes for menus: use as large a font as possible with sharp contrast to the background. Make it readable for people who don’t have perfect vision, especially if it’s for a dimly lit bar. I can read a newspaper in good light without my reading glasses though my eyes are old and tired, but I often come across menus that’re near impossible to read. Design your menu for everybody, not just young people with perfect vision.

Then there’s music and acoustics. Now, we all sort ourselves out by the music we prefer. I usually wind up in bars that play old timer’s tunes – 60s to 80s – but my tastes are quite eclectic: I also like a lot of the new stuff. Some genres however are just hard to take. If I go into a bar owned by a European, I’ll probably encounter techno and unless there’s another important reason for me to stay I won’t last long. To me techno’s an empty shell, without heart, feeling or expression, let alone melody, and I’m bored silly in no time.

Then there’s motherfucker music. Gratuitously disgusting shit. Nobody in Kampot (that I know of) plays that drivel continuously, so I can usually tough out a few minutes before I get antsy.

This next bit is going to be hard because some of my best friends are DJs. You all need to get off the esoteric, artistic, intellectual music kick, that which is oriented towards listening, and concentrate on tunes that people can dance to. Maybe it’s good for dancing after you’ve popped a few pills, but it’s haltering and faltering and abruptly changes modes so often that when you actually start grooving, it’s moved on and the feeling has dribbled away.

For instance, the archtypical DJ song starts out with an undanceable intro, you know, flashy whirly mind sounds, and then goes into a long period of a very boring rhythm which slowly gains intensity. During that time there are a few people on the dance floor trying to figure out how to get into it. Then a musical interlude comes on, many times it’s a familiar song, and gets lots of people dancing, but after a minute or two and everybody is shaking their bums: What the Hell!?, the old boring rhythm returns and within a short time, most dancers have lost interest and are standing around waiting for the ‘real’ music to come back. This happens 3 or 4 times in an 8 or 9 minute song. It goes on and off and you can never really let loose and work up a sweat before it sets you adrift again. Arhymic whoo whoos coming from jerking around the virtual turntable also don’t help. If you all just played the original 3 or 4 minute song all would be fine, the dance floor would be full and stay full.

Acoustics also play an important part. For a room to sound good it needs to include soft materials. An all concrete room, or one with lots of pictures framed in glass, with no rugs, fabrics, wood or straw on the walls and/or ceiling to absorb the sound makes it all come off tinny and hard to listen to.

On another topic: The town is changing and growing very fast, and so far, so good. There are some who lament the changes, who look back fondly to a time when there were 4 western establishments all together – the case eight years ago when I first got here. Well, there’s always Banlung or Pailin or Koh Kong for the barely social types, but most of us here really appreciate the variety of entertainment and activities available.

They finally took down the flashing lights that covered all the bridges and surrounded all the big trees on the river around the 10th of January, what a relief, but they still haven’t opened the old bridge. It’d be a small matter to repair it, only needing to cover 8 or 10 short strips of rusted metal, so it’s hard to understand why they haven’t gotten it together. The closure of the bridge has added a lot of traffic to the new bridge and river road and caused a lot of inconvenience to everyone who could use it. It’s especially made the intersection of new bridge with river road a congested fiasco. What are they waiting for?

One of the other bafflements we expats encounter is the insistence by the police that motorbikes and bicycles be placed on the sidewalk in front of the establishments on the river instead of on the road at the curb. Why do they want everybody to walk on the street when there’s usable sidewalks in many places?

The new traffic law has kicked in, but you’d hardly know it here, except for a marginal increase in helmet use: 70% are still not wearing them. There are more checkpoints on the highways leading out of town, but no enforcement inside. I’ve got to renew my Cambodia driver’s license – now 5 years out of date – before I’ll feel comfortable tootling around outside the city.

There used to be two speed bumps on river road at the southern end of town in front of the government buildings. They were eliminated the last time it was paved but the road really needs the bumps, which are referred to as traffic calming devices in planning parlance. Most of the early evening traffic on the river – probably 75% – is youth cruising back and forth, back and forth, with many – the young boys especially – showing off by going as fast as they can. (The situation has been made a lot worse by the added traffic from the closure of the old bridge.) It’s dangerous and totally unnecessary: a few speed bumps would totally change the dynamic. It’s become a major road with expansions and improvements both north and south of the commercial strip; still, to keep the tourist/entertainment area healthy that one short stretch needs to be slowed down. At one point, the police were preventing people from going through directly and forcing drivers to go around, but that was difficult to enforce, didn’t last long and wasn’t a good solution to begin with.

Now that the PM has a facebook page (he actually had one for over a year but inexplicably denied it) he gets instant feedback on his policies. Thus his abrupt change in the new traffic law by exempting drivers of motorbikes less than 125cc from driver’s licenses. It’s easy to drive a small bike he says, and the fees charged were a bit of a burden to many. The number of children 10 or under driving motos around Kampot attest to how easy it is to drive them, but that doesn’t have much to do with knowing the rules of the road: the knowledge part of any driving test.

How about slowing down when entering an intersection or making a turn? (Actually stopping for a Stop sign? Unthinkable.) Or not cutting in front of a car or truck, forcing them to hit their brakes. You never know if they’re just a bit distracted, maybe talking on their phones, and… Kablooey! Down for the count. And not cutting corners; staying on your side of the road up to the intersection and then making a 90 degree turn when the traffic clears? Or not driving the wrong direction when you can’t make a left because of the traffic? You’re supposed to wait till it’s clear to go directly to the other side. (Full disclosure: I admit to sometimes cutting corners and driving the wrong side of the road on my bicycle… in some circumstances it’s wildly inconvenient to do it the right way. I never flout the rules in the car though.) How about wearing white at night and not driving without lights and pulling as far off the road as possible when you need to stop? All really simple and in some ways life saving rules.

Anybody who drives should know the basic rules of right-of-way. People going straight have priority over turners, though here in Cambodia, the rules are different than in the developed world since cars have priority over motos. As long as the motorbike has time to stop, a car can cut right in front.

If the fees are too costly, they can always be lowered. They’d also need to make up a test for illiterates, since many Cambodians can’t read. There’s no substitute for knowing the rules of the road.

The PM saw how Sam Rainsey’s FB presence made a big difference to the opposition’s campaign, especially true since all the country’s newspapers and TV and most radio is controlled by the CPP or its backers. We foreigners see the Daily or Post and think the press is free, but only for us. The government has tried to censor the internet at times, but hasn’t been very successful.

The CPP really needs the outreach, since they have a propensity to alienate large sectors of the population. The latest example is the painting over of a large wonderful mural of a seamstress… ostensibly because the artist didn’t get a permit, but a government spokesperson also made it clear they thought that the subject wasn’t worthy. One unspoken reason was that the woman depicted is an activist who’s consistently been a thorn in the CPPs side. Still, by saying she wasn’t a worthy subject they managed to insult 700,000 garment workers and people seeking redress in land grabs, etc. Now with used smart phones going for as little as $20, you can be sure that the vast majority of those 700,000 saw the picture of the mural and I expect were put off by its removal.

One last little tidbit. The owner of a small bar was busted with half a kilo of weed. It was a very big operation with platoons of cops involved; some were heavily armed, some were from the national level. The newspapers said he was outed by a local, but a friend said it was an expat. He tends to be caustic at times and is hard for some people to deal with. In the magic of Cambodian justice, a lightning prosecution, trial and conviction – all happening in about a day – had him off with a suspended fine and suspended 6 month sentence. He claims it cost no money. You can’t fault corruption sometimes for simplifying life. It’s possible the cops were expecting a lot more than half a kilo or that maybe he was holding harder drugs and thought it wasn’t worth a big to-do for such a piddling amount. In this case speedy justice was preferred.

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

Kompot Writers and Readers Festival + Condo Bubblemania

 

The four day Kampot Writers and Readers Festival which ran from November 5 to 8 was a great success. From flash idea to fruition in 2 months, Julien Poulson, Robert Starkweather and Wayne McCallum put on an impressive event and hopefully put Kampot on a literary path. There were nearly 50 events spread out over 14 venues and dozens of supporting businesses or institutions.

The inspiration came from the long running Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia. That one’s been going for 12 years: the latest iteration has 200 events in 50 locations and features 25 authors from around the world but mostly from Indonesia. Ubud’s population is about 30,000 so it’s a bit smaller than Kampot, which now has about 40 to 50,000 people. It’s fair to assume then that Kampot probably has the ability to ramp up its festival to Ubud’s level. It’d be great to see Kampot become a literary outpost, a center of intellectual pursuits. That would/could possibly counter the trend towards pure growth and development.

While most attendees and presenters were expats an effort was made to include as many Cambodians as possible. This country does not have a literary tradition. There’s very little in the way of Khmer fiction and most of that is dime romance novels. Hopefully this festival has helped to engender an interest in reading amongst the local population.

Most of the literary events were focused on Cambodians so I didn’t interject myself as a writer, mostly because my work isn’t related to Cambodia. There are quite a few other expat writers based in Kampot and Cambodia, so it’d be good to get us connected even if we don’t write specifically about Cambo. I’ll bring up the subject for next year’s festival.

All the events I attended or witnessed were crowded, standing room only. It was quite a shock, actually, to see so many people interested in these dry, intellectual, not very exciting topics, at least not what you think of as exciting. Part of the reason for the multitudes was a holiday and three day weekend, so Phnom Penhers came in droves for respite from the madding crowds of the big city as well as being motivated to come for the festival. It’s estimated that 500 people attended the events. Of course, as with anything so new and ambitious, there were scheduling glitches and some events that attracted few people. Still an impressive bit of organization under any standard.

The music events were big draws. The opening ceremony featured traditional Khmer music and took place at the Kampot Traditional Music School which is specially oriented towards disabled children.

Tantrei is a new rooftop bar with a great view and relaxed décor. It’s double wide shophouse space with lots of room for a platform on one side of the room, cushions on the floor in another and a band stage in the center. It’s a perfect spot for music and Saturday night the Shabbab, a band from Australia, rocked a packed crowd – maybe 150 people – to noisy rock-n-roll. I was impressed: all those millennials jumping up and down in wild abandon to old-metally-sounding tunes. The lead singer, a runt of a guy, ramped himself into a frenzy of kinetic energy, it was pure charisma. It’s not my preferred music, but when it comes to dancing, a land sight better than that weird melody-less house music, or repetitive techno, or DJs wrecking the rhythm with all those sliding wha-whas.

The Sunday street party included seven 30 minute acts, broken only by 10 minute breaks, with Paul Kelly, the headliner, slated for an hour. The schedule was disrupted by a power outage brought on by a lightening storm which lasted about 30 minutes. Unfortunately that resulted in a truncated set for Kelly, who only had time for 4 songs before the party was shut down at 10 pm. The Khmer always play past 10 so I’m not sure why a 10 pm end was necessary or agreed to.

I’d never hear of Kelly, but an Aussie friend assured me he was their equivalent to Neil Young. I’m often surprised by the contrast between what an artist looks like and the energy they can put out. Kelly is an ordinary, even mousy looking guy, but when he plays he’s all force and charisma. He was really good. He reminds me of French author Michel Houllenbecq, who plays himself in a recent movie called The Kidnapping of Michel Houllenbecq. While his books are raw, intimate and sexy, the guy is himself totally lacking in sex appeal. Quite a contrast.

All in all a job well done and looking forward to next year.

Condo Bubblemania

Cambodia’s real estate and construction industries contributed more to GDP last year than the garment and footwear sector. With that boom has come surging residential property values, up 14% in the first six months of 2015, the highest growth among 13 major Asian cities. The condo boom has been central to that surge. Recent changes to property law allow foreigners to purchase property as long as it’s not the ground floor and the one restriction I’m aware of is that no more than 70% of units in any one building can be foreign owned.

That limit is being reached in new condo projects since 60% to 70% of buyers are non-citizens. And a crucial point to consider is that most buyers, including locals, are buying for speculation, intending to rent them out and expecting values to rise. Those heady visions of big returns have been brought on by the current very tight market which is seeing large returns on investment for condo builders.

But where are the people to actually live in them? Prices for new condos range around $2000 to $3000 per square meter or $200,000 to $300,000 for 100 square meters. That’s a lot of money for not a very big apartment. Here’s a rule of thumb for true property value as opposed to speculative value. The property should be able to bring in rent equal to 1% of the purchase price per month. Under that scenario you’d get your money back in about 8 1/2 years. Add maintenance, occasional vacancies and other costs It’d probably take about 10 years to get your money back. That’s before a cent of profit on your investment.

So $2000 to $3000 per month for an average sized apartment. Whose going to pay that when you can rent a large villa in the center of town for that money? Maybe Chinese, Singaporeans, Koreans who are used to living in high rises will be attracted to that lifestyle, but Khmers? With current rental prices you’d be lucky to get 1/2% per month stretching your payback to 20 years. Sure, if you think someone else is going to be even sillier than you and pay even more for it in a few years, then you’ll be fine. And maybe in that few years time rich people from all over the world will descend on the capital eager to live in high rise apartments and rents will go way up. Two to Three thousand a month for a middling apartment is no big deal in London or New York, maybe Phnom Penh is next.

Unfortunately for pie-in-the-sky investors, there are storm clouds on the horizon, since the number of condos available is going to increase 13 fold in the next two years. It’s extremely difficult to imagine that that flood of new units won’t blow out the market. Maybe it’ll be akin to China’s ghost cities and eventually, five or ten years down the line people will line up to live in them, but meanwhile…

The other plank to the construction boom is in retail space. Even while older malls are closing down or looking all forlorn and semi-abandoned, the sector will double in space in two years time. There’s no way the demand can accommodate that much new space, not by any stretch in the next two years.

Much of the new development is happening on land that was formerly public park land, lakes or open space, and as such the city’s desirability will dive. You can not have a city – at least not a world class city that people will actually want to live in, as opposed to being there because economic need requires it – with a few green strips in one part of town and an oppressive, unbroken sea of development in the rest. In one of the most egregious cases of crimes against green space, 16 hectares of ponds which once absorbed all the rain that fell at Olympic Stadium, are currently being tricked out with condos and malls. Models show an Olympic stadium looking all lonely and dejected because it’s totally boxed in by glitzy retail and high rises.

Booms do have some good points since even if the new construction never gets occupied, there’s still a lot of people who’ve gotten jobs building them. Also since most of the money is coming from outside, those sizable investments offer a big boost to the economy. Another category of winners are those people who bought property back when it was dirt cheap. At $3000 to $6000 per square meter – the current value in Phnom Penh – the money adds up fast.

Booms, unfortunately often presage busts. When the crash happens a lot of people will lose their jobs, those who bought high will suffer big losses and the city skyline will be left with strange empty skeletons of failed grand plans. In the run-up to the peak as property values are skyrocketing, you have long time businesses booted out of their premises by outrageous rent rises and workers forced out of their central locations to live far from work with the expense and hassle that entails.

The fundamental problem is that the wealthy have too much money. They don’t know what to do with it. Interest rates in safe developed countries are very low so they search the world for opportunities. Cambodia is easy to invest in, it’s welcoming, fast and convenient to bring big projects to fruition, there aren’t any zoning regulations and building codes are sketchily enforced. Not that I suggest the new developers are erecting less than quality buildings, just that there’s little hassle in the process.

Booms hit average people hardest. Rents in desirable cities far surpasses the common folk’s ability to pay. The average house price in San Francisco is $1mil, while a small one room studio apartment goes for upwards of $2000 month. Meanwhile there are lots of people doing shit jobs for lousy wages and spending more than half their incomes on rent and they’re often forced to travel long distances to work.

The presence of all that excess dough sets the stage for steep property rises. Life for the bottom 80% would be much easier and simpler if the rich weren’t bidding up the price of property. That applies to Cambodia as well.

It’s a result of the transfer of wealth from the bottom 80% to the top 1% that conservatives have brought about since the Reagan, Thatcher years. It’s all part of the plan to throw money at the wealthy in the provably false belief that enough will trickle down to the bottom to improve everyone’s lives. Unfortunately, it never works that way. Just enough trickles down to keep the bottom on a wage-slave and/or student debt treadmill. State and local governments around the US have decided it’s better to give tax breaks or keep taxes low for the wealthy than support higher education, so that tuition has risen far faster than inflation and student loan debt is now more than credit card debt.

To put the whole thing in perspective, Democratic candidate for president Bernie Sanders is proposing free tuition for all people attending public institutions. That would cost about $62 billion a year. Now Bill Gates is worth about $80b, Warren Buffet about $60b, the Koch brothers about $100b, the five Walton’s $140b. Added up you have $380b, enough to pay for that program for 5 years while still leaving almost $70b for those few filthy rich to continue living their lives of fabulous wealth. That’s just 9 Americans. The next 30 could probably do the same. I’m only saying that the money’s there, it’s only the political will that’s missing. Everybody benefits when everybody who could benefit from higher education has the opportunity to go.

In a developing country like Cambodia, trickle down works differently because almost any job provides a better income than what those worker’s would have living back in the family’s rice farm. So good for them but the city will suffer with loads of high rise skeletons or empty buildings. The drop in property values with the bust will make a lot of people feel a lot poorer. It will also make it harder for many Cambodians to pay their micro finance loans, which now are at record highs. As long as everything is booming, those loans are easy to pay… relatively anyway: it’s always easier to borrow than pay back. While it’s great that average Cambodians have access to money when they need it, the process of large numbers of people defaulting will create chaos in the economy.

In the end result it’s always better to grow slowly and thoughtfully than run headlong into a certain crash, but that’s the way it’s done almost everywhere in the world so one can hardly fault Cambo.

There’s one other possible fly in the economic ointment, that of political stability. The PM seems to be running scared. Though it’s still more than 2 1/2 years till the next general election, he’s pulling out all the stops in harassing the opposition and making hard-to-believe statements like electing the opposition will bring back the Khmer Rouge, cause a civil war, etc. Without massive repression, the opposition will not stand idly by. A lot of Cambodians are tuned into social media and are familiar on a momentary basis with what’s happening in the streets. I would guess that hardly anybody outside the most loyal CPP partisans agrees with the party’s recent actions, it’s only succeeding in turning more people against them.

Investors are spooked by instability and it looks like we may be heading for a period of unrest. There’s no doubt that the PM has the power to stay in office no matter the outcome of a free election or the will of the people. If he loses the next election, as seems likely, will he choose power with repression or stand down gracefully and let the country move on?
Cambostan

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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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Moving Day

The government recently announced plans to expand the National Museum in Phnom Penh by taking over the campus of the Royal University of Fine Arts, which occupies about half the block the museum is on, and move it to the Chroy Changvar peninsula. The last time a part of RUFA was moved to the north of town in Sen Sok district, enrollment plummeted. They lost 2/3rds of their student body. There isn’t any public transit to the area so students without their own motorbikes will have to spend five to ten dollars a day to hire motos, totally prohibitive for the average student. And even if public buses become available in the future, getting to school could take a long time, especially if a student lived south of town.

The planned RUFA move comes after a long line of relocation of government facilities to the outskirts of town. It’s a concept that was pushed by the PM. There are several reasons why that is a bad idea, though there is, at least in government eyes, some justification.

The government gets new modern facilities on spacious plots of land in exchange for buildings that are or were, in many cases, outmoded, inadequate and sometimes decrepit. The private company gets very valuable city center land to develop. However the costs are many, including the fact that it’s a fundamentally bad idea in terms of city planning. As one who majored in Urban Studies and has had a life long interest in planning it’s patently obvious how dysfunctional the concept is so it came as quite a surprise a few years back when a friend questioned my take on the matter.

Public facilities need to be centrally located so the maximum number of citizens can access them within the shortest possible trips. The further people have to go take care of public business, the greater their personal cost and the cost to the city of increased traffic. When you take public facilities located in the heart of town where a large majority of citizens can access them in a few minutes of travel and place them at the edge of town where the vast majority of citizens have to go long distances to get there, it becomes a hardship on them and is an impediment to taking care of public business.

The dysfunction would be clearer if Phnom Penh had an adequate transit system: In that case you‘d see a circle in the center of town crisscrossed with transit lines then long fingers extending from the circle to the edges of the urban area with few connections outside the circle. Getting into the circle would be relatively easy, whereas getting to Sen Sok, where most public facilities have moved to, at the end of one bus line on the north of town would be a big hassle for almost everybody.

It’s not just the citizens who lose, the workers and bureaucrats also have many complaints in that regard, since they have the same burden of extra cost, time and the hassle of travel. Those who own cars can spend a lot of money getting to work and back when the round trip is 20 kms or more. Fortunately, there’s been some backtracking on the idea. The former governor of Seam Reap relocated public buildings to a new center almost 20 kms from town to complaints from everybody involved. The new governor is moving them back where they belong, at least a lot closer. Also, there will supposedly be no more land exchanges in Phnom Penh in response to public complaints.

The damage has already been done in terms of congestion and inconvenience, but there’s another factor to consider. Most of the sold-off centrally located facilities were old-style, low density campus type developments. In other words, they gave the city breathing space and often had absorbent surfaces so that rainwater could percolate into the ground. All of them that I’m aware of have either been replaced by high-density buildings or at minimum have been paved over so that rainwater that previously could be taken care of on site is now diverted into the city’s inadequate drainage system.

The former T-3 prison site at Streets 13 and 154, is just such a case and provides a perfect example of poor planning and lack of foresight. It’s adjacent to an area that experiences some of the city’s worst flooding. Since it was traded of to a prominent local businessman, the entire area has been paved so that all of the rainwater that now falls on the former prison site is sent to the drainage system which overloads with every heavy rain.

In addition to exacerbating flooding problems in the area it has been turned into a parking lot and repository of buildings that range from non-descript to trash: an ugly eyesore close to the center of the city’s entertainment and cultural district. The owner may eventually place buildings of value there, but now it’s as good as derelict.

However, getting back to the RUFA move, there’s still an opportunity to right those urban wrongs. The T-3 site would make a perfect spot for a new campus to enable the university to remain in the heart of the city where it belongs. It would also, if the development plans included flood mitigation, go very far in improving the area’s drainage problems. It would also add greenery to a city that’s becoming ever denser and more concrete. Yes it’s near the riverside, but there’s not much that’s green there and it’s packed every afternoon because there are so few public places for people to enjoy the outdoors.

Needless to say land in the area is far more valuable now than when it was sold off some time ago so it wouldn’t be an easy task to raise the money to buy it back for the people. Sometimes to do it right and correct past mistakes it costs big money… anyway China is always willing to part with some of its trillions if it means currying favor, and Cambodia is always glad to oblige by backing China up, so the money should be no problem.

The new campus is planned on land owned by the government so if minimizing cost is the primary factor then relocating there makes sense, but not if enrollment crashes in the process. It also seems a bit counterproductive in the long run to expand the museum to accommodate increasing visitor numbers, while shortchanging the future of the arts in Cambodia by severely cutting back on the number of young people studying it.

Another factor in the way land has been swapped is the extreme opacity of the deals. This is exemplified by the Beung Kak lake project. It took a full two years after the deal was announced before anybody outside the main participants could figure out who the land had been sold to; the government was silent. Ownership was discovered through a Chinese language web site, since the local owner had partnered with a Chinese firm.

All deals were done with no citizen input whatever, not to mention being against the wishes of the civil servants involved. Many times there was no advance warning of impending moves. Often it was like: This building has been traded off to a private firm and you have a week or two to pack up your office and move.

Another factor is the likelihood of kickbacks and corruption in the awarding of contracts. With Cambodia ranked 156 out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index, no one would be surprised if a lot of dark money changed hands. However, regardless of the possible presence of under-the-table money in the process, it’s still entirely plausible to think the officials involved believed that the changes they were directing were beneficial to the city. I give them some benefit of the doubt.

As for corruption, there’s no doubt it runs through all sectors of public life. The question is whether Sam Rainsy and his Cambodian National Rescue Party would’ve done things differently and whether in the long run his party would turn out to be any less corrupt.

An anecdote comes to mind that isn’t directly related to corruption, but still makes you ponder. A few years ago the son of a wealthy Sam Rainsy legislator was driving his Lexus SUV drunkenly down Street 51 in the bar area. In the process he sideswiped two or three motorbikes. Instead of apologizing as any normal person would do, he became irate and started haranguing the moto drivers who happened to be in his way and demanded that one of them get on his hands and knees and crawl through his legs.
The guy wasn’t going to take it. Heated arguments ensued and unfortunately for the rich kid the guy was an armed undercover cop and shot him dead. The father was quoted later as saying he didn’t deserve to die for that. I agree, nobody should die just for being an arrogant asshole, but I also admit it did make you feel good that at least one rich elitist bastard got his comeuppance. And how on earth could he raise his son to be such a rotten, lousy human being?

Apropos that incident, the PM once remarked that Cambodia’s upper crust really should treat the common people with more respect, or else they might have to deal with another rebellion. One of the motivations of the KR was to create an egalitarian society. The citizenry had been treated with such contempt and indifference to their needs and aspirations by Cambodia’s elite, it was natural for people to gravitate towards the concept of a more equal society.

It does seem likely that the opposition would be less corrupt, even from the fact that they’d be new at it and it might take some time to get their corruption learning curve up to speed. Whenever a government has been entrenched for so long – the PM’s been in power now for 30 years – there’s a tremendous inertia that holds back the effort in tackling corruption.

The country’s ACU, Anti-Corruption Unit, has fingered quite a few wrongdoers, but they’re generally people in disfavor with the government. Sometimes the ACU’s deference to those on the CPP’s good side becomes ridiculous. An NGO that provides bed nets reported a while back that the top ministry official had taken half million dollars in bribes from net providers. When pressed on the matter the head of the ACU said he wasn’t planning on charging him. Bribery okay for some, evidently. The bribe didn’t reduce the amount of money that went to purchase nets, but still.

With the adoption of the ACU law, all lawmakers were required to submit an accounting of their assets, except they were in sealed envelopes that would only be opened in case of an investigation. They could put anything in those envelopes, who would know the difference? I almost sympathize with them: If everybody’s been doing it forever, you’d almost want an amnesty for past wrongs except in the most egregious situations. Amnesty, disclosure, then closely watched from then on. Regardless of how they got the money, it’s still essential that assets be disclosed. China puts people in prison just for campaigning on the issue of disclosure. China’s president Xi Jinping has also been on an anti-corruption campaign, but very similar to Cambodia, when you look closely at who’s been targeted, it’s almost always political enemies or merely competitors. Clean hands there is hard to imagine.

The PM recently challenged Rainsy to a lightning oath. Rainsy has to ask the gods to strike him down if he lied about the CPP committing fraud in the last election and the PM for his part asks for the lightning bolt if he cheated. Silly stuff, but typical for someone in office so long: They say anything that comes to mind because they’ve not had to deal with checks or questions on their rule.

For certain, the opposition CNRP has begun to challenge the PM on a host of matters. It’s not so easy anymore to hide behind secret, opaque budgets and lawmaking. How Hun Sen reacts will make all the difference in the next election. He calls people who fought back against brutal security guards in last year’s election protests as fomenting insurrection and farmers fighting back against the loss of their land as secessionists… 300 hundred poor families want to have their own country? You don’t make friends that way. Meanwhile Rainsy continues to scapegoat Vietnamese for many of Cambodia’s ills and stains his potential with racism.

The country will face a difficult decision in the next election in 2018, though I think the desire for change, in spite of the opposition’s glaring faults, will outweigh the PM’s accomplishments – stability, growth, improved infrastructure, reduction in poverty.

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