Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

International Village, Kampot

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a good life.

 

 

 

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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.

 

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