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.