Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

If You Find the Perfect Place….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kampot, Cambodia

Safe and Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

It was quite a circus on Kampot’s riverside last new year’s with every centimeter of the park strip that wasn’t occupied by parked cars and motorbikes taken up by Khmer picnickers and revelers. They laid out their straw mats on the hard ground and partied up. Some brought their boom boxes, others brought tents for overnight. It’s too bad the park strip is so narrow right at old town, because Khmers love to congregate, they hate being alone and only feel really comfortable when lots of other people are around. So while there were locals picnicking all along the 3 kilometer waterfront it was most crowded where it could least accommodate them.

In the aftermath there was trash all over the place, though actually, the majority was piled around the small inadequate trash bins. Maybe they just don’t have any additional ones they could’ve placed there, but it sure would’ve made a difference in the clean up phase.

The road itself was also jammed with vehicles and people. The absence of usable sidewalks doesn’t impact life and livability in a small city like Kampot with about 50 to 60,000 people the way it does in the capital, because traffic is generally relatively light, but on a holiday like new years, it can get pretty treacherous out there trying to get around.

Kampot has become a prime destination for locals on holiday. They flock to the little burg at every opportunity. Especially from Phnom Penh, since the capital has done and is doing its best to cover every public park and vacant space with buildings. If you don’t live near the river or Olympic stadium, there’s no place to go for respite from the noise and concrete. I just don’t get it: The people who run the country have certainly been to other cities in the region and the world that have wonderful natural parks. Just in our neighborhood, Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok, Rangoon all have beautiful parks. In Cambodia’s cities, there isn’t a single natural park outside of Siem Reap. The country is great at securing riverside space for the people, but after that, zilch, nada, nil.

High season is in full swing with everybody, or nearly everybody enjoying the rush of customers. Still, it doesn’t seem as busy as in the past, though maybe only because new establishments are proliferating. There’s been lots of live music around, not like rainy season when the place was dead. In addition to the old regulars like the Playboys which I mention often, there’s a threesome called the Potshots. Ant and John are on guitars and Hugh on drums make a really tight sound, they’ve literally been playing together for years. Ant and John also play around town as a duo. After a long hiatus, I’ve started to bring my instruments at open mics so the action is welcome.

Potshots is also the name of a paintball park partly owned by Ant. Sounds like great fun, though I personally probably shouldn’t be running around on rough terrain at my age. I can take off on a sprint without a problem, if I’m thinking and careful, but the old bones get brittle and I could easily get sprained if I got too excited and rambunctious while out on the kill.

Speaking of traffic let me unload some pet peeves and proffer a little advice. Here in Kampot car drivers will stop their vehicles wherever they happen to be in the street, even right in the center of a traffic lane. Sure, most times there’s little traffic and plenty of room to get around, but it still seems weird to me. The rule is to always get your vehicle as far as possible off the traffic lanes, cause you never know if the necking down you are causing will in turn result in an accident. That’s especially true on highways where people are driving really fast: get out of the way or you may be in for a rude awakening. Even just a motorbike can cause problems when it’s on the edge of the roadway instead of completely off it. Stopping anywhere you feel like also happens in Phnom Penh, where I saw drivers everywhere double parking, causing minor jams. Cambodia’s cities were not built for the automobile, so as the number of cars in the country ramps up there’ll be gridlock and chaos. The problem will also be exacerbated by the large multistory buildings filling up the center city since they will be drawing large numbers of cars. Even if they provide parking spaces to residents, there’ll still be a lot more traffic.

The government is working on traffic legislation. One proposal is establish a minimum driving age of 18 for cars and 15 for motorbikes. Sounds reasonable enough, but if the moto age restriction is ever enforced here in Kampot there’ll be lots of very disappointed little kiddies who you can see bopping around on their little bikes. I see them as young as 6 or 7 years old. While they may be fully capable in a technical sense of handling their Chalys or what have you, they have almost no sense of safe driving practices and will cut corners, snake around traffic and pull in front of vehicles without thinking, not to mention often drive very fast. And of course it’s very rare to see one wearing a helmet. Personally, I’d be scared to death to have a little kid of mine out in traffic with all the crazies out there doing cowboy tricks on the road.

Also the PM has ordered that drivers of motorbikes with 125cc or less engines be exempt from having a driver’s license. I’m sure everybody who drives one of those little bikes – what we call scooters in the west – was happy to hear that, but what about the need to know the traffic rules? For that there’s no substitute than passing a test.

One of my driving pet peeves is how motorists will stop their cars at night but leave the headlights on, including when they’re facing the wrong direction. It’s very disconcerting when you’re facing bright lights on your side of the road. Didn’t anybody teach them what parking lights, sometimes called running lights are for? You want people to know you’re there, you don’t want to blind them.

And let me reiterate, when you’re out walking at night, especially if you’re going to be on a road that’s not well lit, you need to wear something white or light colored even if you think all black is more stylish, because otherwise you are invisible to drivers until they get very close. I usually drive slowly, but I do get distracted at times and old eyes generally lose some of their night vision so you really want me to see you far in advance, not have to swerve out of the way at the last minute.

A large scale drug crackdown is in force here in Cambodia, maybe sparked or inspired by the Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous assault on small time users and dealers. Summary execution for selling a few nickel bags of meth to fund your addiction? Or just using? No evidence, no trial, no lawyer, no opportunity to claim your innocence? He even bragged about participating in a few extrajudicial murders himself while mayor of Davao in the southern island of Mindanao. The result of 18 years of his tenure as an anti-drugs anti-crime mayor?: Davao has one of the highest murder rates in the country, in a country where violent crime is rife. And all those bloody murders where official numbers show the country has 4 million ‘addicts’, which mysteriously grew from only 1.3 million just a couple years ago. That would be a lot in Cambodia which has 15 million people, but the Philippines has more than 100 million, so at most a minor irritant. Also, rumor has it that Duterte is addicted to prescription pain killers, so if true, a hypocrite besides.

Other countries in the region maintain a mandatory death sentence for relatively small amounts of drugs: In Malaysia and Singapore 15 grams of heroin or 200 grams of pot qualify for the death penalty. Talking to a Malaysian a few years back, he said that traffickers figure if they’re going to die for a small amount, they might as well do large amounts.

With the advanced world moving towards looser, more humanitarian attitudes towards drugs, this type of crack down is an insanely regressive move.

Instead of education and harm reduction, people are getting draconian sentences. A friend knows a woman who was duped by a boyfriend into carrying a kilo of meth and got 27 years. A truck driver who got $100 for moving a ton of marijuana got life in prison. Another woman duped by a boyfriend into importing 2 kilos of cocaine also got life. He kept pressuring her until she gave in. She had no idea what she was transporting. She aroused suspicion by not having any check-in baggage. These are not the big fish, but merely couriers. In a country where murder sometimes only gets 15 to 20 years, a travesty of justice.

The place to start easing up is of course ganja. With nine American states making recreational pot totally legal and another 20 or so making medical weed legal; Uruguay legalizing pot and others loosing up, there’s no reason whatever for going after pot here in Cambodia, especially with the anomaly of ganja being quasi-legal for happy pizzas. Colorado, the first state to make it legal, is getting twice as much in taxes from pot as from alcohol. With surrounding countries on drug killing sprees, it’d be hard for Cambodia to buck the trend, but it would nonetheless be wise to try, since an open attitude would be good for the country and for tourism. It costs a lot of money to nab, prosecute and imprison drug offenders. And it costs society a lot in peace and security when a large scale underground business in contraband flourishes, bringing crime and corruption.

Cambodia is already the easiest place to smoke weed in the region and there are no discernable negative impacts on the country from the drug itself; that is, aside from its illegality. In the same way that Cambo makes it easy and is tolerant of all types of people living here, having a gentle touch with marijuana would only be good for tourism and drawing expats.

The key to minimizing use of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, whatever is education. Tobacco is the perfect example. When I was a kid in the forties and fifties around 70% of adults smoked and lots of kids too, considering I started at 12. Tobacco advertising was everywhere, including on TV and so many adults smoked that it was difficult for them to tell you not to. Camel advertising claimed ‘9 out of 10 doctors prefer Camels’. I once had an old advertising sign from Old Gold cigs that said ‘Not a cough in a carload.’ Filters didn’t come into use until the late 50s. The tobacco companies tried to convince people that their product was harmless decades after everyone knew inherently that it was dangerous. We kids were aware of its dangers back in the fifties: we referred to cigarettes as coffin nails.

Now after many years of research debunking the industry’s obfuscating and clouding the issue of health problems associated with smoking, restricting of advertising and widespread education, the percentage of smokers is down below 20%. Tobacco is so cheap here in Cambo that a lot of expats will smoke here but not when they return to their home countries where it can be very expensive.

I believe everybody has a right to their own poison; it’s your choice. The only important point on that score is to know your poison. Some people justify their addiction saying they like it and don’t care if they don’t live as long. Unfortunately for them it’s not that simple. If you could enjoy your habit for three or four decades and then die nice and quickly, that’d be one thing, but generally when your cells turn cancerous you die a slow and terribly painful death, wasting away to nothing. That could happen when you are in your fifties or sixties when you still might have had decades of good living to go. When I was in my teens and people warned me about smoking, I would haughtily declare that I was going to enjoy life now and wasn’t worried about the future and as long as I lived to the year 2000 (when I’d be 59) I’d be happy. Well the year 2000 is long gone and I’m still having a great time and getting a kick out of life.

It took an extreme effort to quit 35 years ago, and it’s certainly made all the difference. I quit by overdoing it, sometimes called immersion therapy. Most of the time I smoked it was cheap, harsh, unfiltered, roll-your-own cigs. When that was combined with smoking pot for the last 14 years I smoked tobacco, it got so I was coughing all the time. Smoking both at the same time is much worse than either one individually. I couldn’t attend meetings or such without disrupting them.

I’d known from past experience that there were times I was so sick I positively could not take a single hit, so I purposely made myself sick. I smoked one after another non-stop of that cheap tobacco. When I finished the package, I started rolling the butts and then the butts of the butts until I felt so bad the thought of a single puff was so repulsive, I stopped. That was 35 years ago and I haven’t had a hit since, except for mistakenly smoking mixed joints.

The point being, whatever the addiction, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, gambling, it’s the individual’s responsibility, with whatever education, guidance or rehab efforts the state can provide. In that scenario, the damage and cost to the society and individual is far less than the kind of repression that happens now.

Besides, the whole anti-drug thing is stinkingly hypocritical. In Singapore, you can kill yourself with tobacco or alcohol, you can eat yourself to death, you can gamble away your family’s future in the local casinos, but if you smoke a joint you get locked away. A couple years back a Singaporean couple returning from a vacation in Australia were drug tested and since they’d smoked pot in Oz and pot lasts 30 days in your system they spent two years in prison for their terrible transgressions.


Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

Five Rooms a Day



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Economics, Uncategorized

Negative Interest – Cashless Society.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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