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.

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Kampot, Cambodia

Festivals and Such

First, before I come to the festivals, there’s sad news to report. Within a few days 3 people died here in Kampot. First there was two young backpacker women who died overnight in a local guest house. There was no indication of foul play. They both had been vomiting and very sick the night before and both had taken the same medication. I expect they had eaten at the same place, food poisoning is not uncommon here, and took meds that might’ve been fake or improper for their ailment. We’ll never know since the local police have no way to do autopsies.

A short time later the body of 51-year-old Paul Trent, a long time expat, was discovered 2 or 3 days after he passed. He had been going through terrible back and sciatic nerve pain and had been taking, let’s say experimenting with different meds. The doctor would say, try this for a month, if it doesn’t work we’ll try something different. Once again without a proper autopsy, we’ll never know. He looked fine except for the chronic pain, so I assume it was the meds. He was the kind of guy who was liked by all, enemy of none. He lived here for nearly ten years and is sorely missed. A wake was held at the Dog House and a couple days later at O’Neil’s, both well attended by his many friends.

The above was written a couple weeks ago. We’ve suffered another sad loss since then; Patrick, Kampot’s Belgian baker died in his sleep just a few days ago. They say it was a stroke. I had seen him at the bar just a few hours before he passed, he seemed totally normal, nothing out of the ordinary. Hard to believe. You never know.

The third annual Kampot Readers and Writers Festival was held at the beginning of November. It had its good points but followed a downhill trend from the first one. For instance in the first go-round the organizers printed up a beautiful large, fold-up schedule of events and there were lots of them; workshops, readings, short films. Lots of local businesses opened up their places for the events.

Last year there was no printed schedule at all for the first day: finding out what was happening that day required a visit to their little streetside headquarters. The schedule for the remaining days was hastily-put-together, graphic-art-challenged, sheets of white paper. There were, in fairness, still quite a few events for the literary crowd.

For this last one there was no printed schedule at all, very scant information on the festival’s web and FB pages, and no notice whatever on the Kampot Noticeboard FB page by the organizers… how hard could that’ve been? The only schedules on the noticeboard were put there by participants. I heard of a couple poetry sessions, but that’s about all there was regarding writing or reading, at least that I knew about.

For me personally, as a writer, all three festivals were disappointing. It seems to me, if you’re running an event based on writing in a small town like Kampot, you’d want to make a point of contacting all the writers who live in the town to get them on board and help them promote their work and engage the community. The first festival I sent a message asking for a time slot and venue, but was completely ignored. The second year I and two author friends put together a session on our own, secured the venue and did our own publicity. This last time I had a friend who had set up an event for me but then she fell out with the chief of the festival and the whole thing fell through.

With all the disorganization they did manage to discover The Lotus Villa. It faces the south end of The Pond, our one park. It’s a very large old house in a big lot and a fine new venue for concerts. They managed to fill up three nights’ schedules. Artists from Kampot and way beyond served up excellent sets. There were probably 150 people there, which was surprising given that there had been extremely little publicity. Even with that number of people there was lots of room to spare. The place includes a large grassy area where the band set up. There was ample space in front of the band for people to hang out, even picnic. What really makes it perfect, though, is that hardly anybody lives right there, it’s mostly public buildings or the pond itself, so there’s hardly anybody to feel put out by having loud music nearby. It wasn’t that loud, but there will always be someone to complain.

After last year’s disappointment at the disorganized way the event was run and the excessive control over it by one person who seemed to be doing it as a personal project (and also it seemed for personal gain) rather than a community endeavor, most of us agreed that this year should be different. Well it wasn’t, except being worse. It was fine as a music event, but a bust as a literary event.

As if in response, a community run art festival is being put together for the beginning of January. They’ve already put up very nice promotional banners and have put regular announcements on the Kampot noticeboard. It’s bound to be a success.

On Sunday afternoon of the same weekend, Champa Lodge did one of their Live on the River shows. It’s in a quiet, beautiful setting about 5 kilometers upstream from town, so it’s far enough to be safe for swimming – there’s not many people living upstream – and it has a nice little beach. It’s at the far end of a U in the river so looking out you see the relatively close opposite bank but then on both sides you can see the river for quite a long distance and Bokor Mountain in the distance.

They have a shelter on the river that doubles as a perfect bandstand and it was a showcase for town’s musicians. There’s lots of greenery and grass which makes it great for kids to run around in. That was also true of the Lotus Villa where the festival was held. One of the really heartwarming things about these afternoon gatherings in Kampot is the number of kids running around meeting other kids and in general having a great time. It makes a real community to have people of all ages in attendance. Champa is planning to do it once a month through the dry season with maybe some special events added at times.

November 11 was the third annual air guitar championships at the Pond Guest House. Maybe 70 or 80 people showed up. I went last year for my first air guitar experience. I had previously thought the whole idea to be silly but it was more than silly, it was hilarious, I’ve rarely laughed so hard. It sounds easy, but it does take style, panache and a bit of courage to get up and make it funny enough to cop the prize. Here of course, almost everybody knows the contestants so it’s another community event, and like the others, with plenty of kids around. The Pond is more known for it’s once a month outdoor market in the high season. It’s definitely not worth it in rainy season; nobody’s around – not many anyways – not enough to chance a rainy day. In addition to its sheltered area where there’s a bandstand and room for seating, there’s a wide expanse of grass and lots of room for people to sell their wares and also hang out and relax on the springy green stuff.

Then there are the regular music events. Every Sunday at Billabong Guest House is Sunday Sessions with afternoon and early evening music and partying. They have a pool, a fine place for water lovers to hang out, which also includes a pool bar so you imbibe while sitting in the water. It’s a good place to hang out to finish off the weekend. With the pool it’s also kid friendly.

Tuesdays it’s always packed at Karma Traders a bit north of town. The music venue is up on the second floor (third floor American) so there’s always a strong breeze blowing through. Always good music and a good crowd.

Wednesdays it’s music night at the Magic Sponge. At 10 pm it’s a jam with all musicians invited. You’ll often find me there, sometimes with a sax, sometimes with my congas. I always appreciate a chance to play.

Thursdays there’s live music at Nellie’s Farm, a relaxed outdoor setting. It’s also north of town about 100 meters before Karma Traders.

Fridays it’s Banyan Tree on the opposite, west side of the river on Teuk Chhou Rd. they feature live music before the disco kicks in around 10.30 or 11 pm. They’ve managed to figure out a way to keep the volume up enough for the dance floor without disturbing the neighbors. What a relief, my favorite place to dance lately. Music doesn’t need to be loud to inspire a dancing mood, but it can’t be too soft, then it’s not enough.

Finally to round out the week, it’s Naga House, also on the west side of the river. Like Banyan Tree the dance floor is right on the river, so really cool and pleasant. Unfortunately their space doesn’t go well with live music so it’s only disco. Still a place to be. They’ve also announced, warned people, that the volume goes down at midnight.

I’m sure there are others I’ve left out. Sorry I just can’t keep up anymore. I used to know almost everybody in town – I’ve lived here for 10 years – now I’ve got to be content to know quite a few people at some events. People are coming to live here so fast, especially from Sihanoukville where an invasion (that’s what some people would call it) of Chinese has some people grumbling and running for the exits, there’s no way, for me at least, to be able to review all the new venues.

A word on stage lighting is in order: most people seem to blow off lighting as of secondary importance. As a result most of the staged events I’ve attended recently had lighting that ranged from tolerable by accident to atrocious by design. The worst was the writers festival stage at the Lotus Villa. There was a row of very bright glaring lights at the back of the stage facing out so it practically hurt your eyes to look at it and it put the performers faces in shadow. It’s the front of the stage that needs to be lit and facing back, not forward into the crowd. Doing it right requires spotlights. You want the performers to be brightly lit and nothing else.

The spate of bag snatchings mentioned recently has become an epidemic. It’s happening really often, sometimes in areas that’re quite busy and at relatively early times, like before 9 o’clock. You do see the police out at night at times, but they come sitting in the back of pick-up trucks. That’s not the way to deter the bad guys, they need to be out in motorbikes cruising around surreptitiously, on the lookout in vehicles that allow for a good chase. A group of expats have formed to try to counter the trend.

Kampotradio.com is starting to catch on, both with listeners and with presenters. At times as many as 2000 people are tuning in. Most are here in town and around Cambodia, but listeners come from all over the world. Now on some days we have presenters from 10am all the way to 8pm.

Personally I’m quite committed. For one, four nights a week, Monday to Thursday from 7 to 8pm, I do a music show spinning those good old tunes… Doors, Taj Mahal, Grateful Dead, you know what I mean. It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate lots of the new stuff, I just don’t know much of it… and I’m too old to learn all those new names and bands. Seems like being into new stuff is more a young thing. Now I’m content to reminisce with the old. At any rate, no way could I put together playlists of new stuff.

My other contribution to the station is my six-days-a-week one minute weather report. It’s recorded and broadcast at noon, 2pm and 4pm. To my fans I’m Stan the Weatherman. That’s in addition to my weather report on the Kampot Noticeboard. I’ve always been interested in the weather. I brought my first weather station to Kampot 9 years ago. I’m now on my third. The first two crapped out on me; electronic devices don’t do so well in our almost always hot and humid climate. And now my third is giving me trouble.

My first two included anemometers – wind speed – and electronic rain gauges. The anemometers never were much good because I couldn’t get them high enough to be accurate. The rain gauges were very nice for seeing how fast it was falling, but not so good on a daily basis. Now my rain calculations come from a $5 plastic rain gauge. And now I have a cheaper station that only includes a barometer and indoor and outdoor temperature and humidity. The one additional piece of equipment is a Stevenson box. It’s the only way to accurately determine temperature. It’s basically a wood box painted white with louvers on all sides to let air come through. It sits 1.3 meters off the ground over a grassy spot; they can’t be located above any kind of pavement that would radiate heat. Finally to insure the temp gauge inside is not impacted in any way by sunlight, it has a little roof, also painted white, over it.

My wind reporting and predictions of upcoming weather comes from the internet. I used to go mostly to Weather Underground – wunderground.com – but since they changed the site’s format their software guys got confused and now they’re reporting temperatures below freezing. They’ve obviously stuck in readings from somewhere very far north. The opening page is correct as to current temperature but wind direction is confused: the graphic has been stuck on North since last dry season, but underneath is the correct direction.

I’ve been messaging them to no avail since mid September when the craziness began. It’s still the best site I’ve found for details on major storms and climate changes so I still go everyday. Now I depend on Weather.com for predictions on temperature and precipitation. Also Ventusky.com has a great map that shows wind and rain and predicts 10 days in advance. The best graphic for current conditions is from earth.nullschool.net. It has a globe that you can spin around to see conditions all over the world… it’s beautiful, especially when it depicts great storms.

Though it’s only November, it feels a lot like high season, there seems to be a lot of people around. It’ll be really busy here in dry season.

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Kampot, Cambodia

Strange September

 

 

September was a very dry month in Kampot. We got only 120 mm of rain when the average is about 270. I don’t ever remember a similar September in my ten years here, of course, there’s a lot of things I don’t remember. Even last year when we got 170, it seemed more normal. The town’s been really quiet in spite of the clement weather which fools you into thinking it should be more like high season. The owner of Kepler’s books, Kampot’s first bookstore – we now have two – says that September is always his slowest month. October has followed the September pattern except that it rained every day for a bit, but only in very small amounts… Now at deadline it’s still been relatively very dry, as of the 21st we’ve had only 1/4th of average for October. Meanwhile almost every few days we see pictures of Phnom Penh under water. Cambodia is small but still there can be very big differences in climate. Even just within a few kilometers of central Kampot there can be big differences sometimes, at least in rainfall.

Rip-off. One local saga that came to a head in September, even though it began earlier, was the rip-off by a local travel agent of a lot of money that was paid for visa extensions. She also regularly took money and passports from another agent to add to her customers. At some point she snapped, saw all that cash moving through her hands, and just kept it. When people came for their passports, she kept saying there was a delay. By the time she was found out, the other agent was out the $17,000 that it took to make good on all the passport and overstay fees. I don’t know how much she took from her own customers, but it probably was equal.

So, what did this brilliant thief do with her ill gotten gains?  Did she flee to another part of Cambodia to start a new life under an alias? Did she buy gold and jewelry and bury it so she could retrieve it when she got out of prison? No. She bought land in Kampot!!! How could anyone with at least half a brain think they could get away with something like that? Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. Before she had her own agency, she worked for another and it was her name that a number of people (I don’t know the specifics) used on their land titles in the 51%-49% artifice used to allow foreigners to buy land here. She’s currently on the lam with an arrest warrant out for her. What’s going to happen if any of those landowners need to sell and she isn’t found or not found for an extended period? I can barely imagine the effing hassle that’s going to be.

Shut Down. Banyan Tree is a guesthouse/restaurant/bar on the west side of the river about a kilometer from the main highway. It’s right on the river and a very pleasant place to be. Before it was Banyan Tree it was Bodhi Villa. Going back at least 10 years, there’s been music on that site, both live and recorded every Friday night and all night. Some people have complained about it in the past but it was an institution that had rights.

But then somebody purchased land next door and put up $60 per night bungalows… and complained to his VIP Khmer friend and you know how it works here, so Chiet, the Khmer owner, turned the music down. But it was really down: it was okay on the dance floor, but you could barely hear it otherwise. This rankled so he turned it back up, but not to the point of being loud. My old tortured ears – from loud music and industrial noise –  are extremely sensitive to excessive volume, and I guarantee you it wasn’t loud. Still the uppity guy next door complained again. Once someone like that gets a bug up their ass there’s no placating them.

This resulted in the police coming in at midnight and confiscating his big speakers. He turned it down again, but it wasn’t enough to placate the whiner next door and the police came a second time two weeks later to confiscate another pair of speakers. Chiet showed the police a db meter which clearly indicated that it wasn’t really loud, to no avail. Now they switch to a small speaker set at midnight which is just barely enough to inspire dancing. So it goes.

Meanwhile, the mister moneybags who shut down Madi bar because it was funky and had character, who nixed a bar that sported live and disco music every Thursday night for 5 or 6 years, who murdered some fine old trees that formed a beautiful green canopy over the entrance of the bar, has a new tenant. Did he look for something stylish, cool, trendy? No, he rented to another cheap-assed, butt-ugly, super-tacky, happy fucking pizza restaurant. I can hardly get over it. The cool thing about Madi’s was that since it was owned by a local it attracted lots of Khmers as well as expats, as opposed to most of the places I go that’re almost exclusively westerners.

Strange Street Construction. The city is rebuilding new bridge road again. Just a couple years ago they built a high quality asphalt surface, but it was nowhere near strong enough to handle the massively overloaded rock trucks (and some others) that use the street. Rocks are very heavy, when a truck’s bed is loaded up to its design capacity it’s already really rough on roads, but most rock truck owners here build up the sides and extend the bed to get a bigger payload which adds at least 50% to its weight and as you can guess plays havoc with the road surface.

So a new road surface is now in progress. It’s built strong with reinforced concrete that’s 20 cm – 8 inches – thick and should be able to handle those heavy trucks for a reasonable length of time. Unfortunately and crazily they decided to save money and not excavate the previous surface, but merely build on top of it, with the result that the road surface is basically the same level as the sidewalk, in some cases the road surface is above the level of the market. They are including a runoff channel between the road and sidewalk but I fear it’ll be nowhere near enough to handle a real downpour, especially since the channels are bound to get and stay clogged up with debris. Many shops across from the market are now on street level and they will need a good supply of sandbags to prevent flooding.

Dust Up. Had a little fracas at one of the late night bars recently. Really strange. There’s about 10 people at the bar, guy leaves to pee, comes back, his phone is gone. Well, nobody had come or gone in the short time he was away, so it had to be there. Okay so they turn off the music and someone else rings his number, phone rings, guy goes to answer it. He was traveling through, not a local. The aggrieved party said, That’s my phone. Other guy, a bit drunk, insists it’s his – in spite of the clear evidence that it wasn’t his, I mean they had just called the number right in front of his eyes – and he wants to answer it.

Aggrieved party being a bit of a hot head lunged for him, flew as one eye-witness described,  and mayhem pursued, almost everybody who was in the bar was taking part, mostly jostling out on the street. Finally the unwitting thief was subdued and told to look in his pocket. Sure enough his phone was in the other pocket. With all that ruckus I didn’t hear of any blood being shed or major bruises suffered. It definitely could’ve been handled without the fracas, but when someone has your phone in his hand and insists it’s his, well one can get quite exercised in that situation.

TVs and Bars. I have a near fanatic detestation of TV in general, so as you might expect I’m the opposite of drawn to bars with TVs. If it’s a sports bar or you show movies or special events, then of course it fits, otherwise one of two things happen when there’s a TV in a bar. One is that nobody is watching it, in which case it’s a waste of energy and an unnecessary distraction. Even when I don’t want to look at it, it’s there flashing away in my peripheral vision. If people are watching it then it’s hard to converse, they’re looking up at the boob tube and not able to relate when you’re trying to talk to them.

In terms of my patronage, that’s one strike against the bar. If you understand the baseball analogy, if you miss the ball three times when you’re at bat that’s three strikes and you’re out. If I like you and like the bar and like your clientele, I’ll still come, just not be as enthusiastic.

I don’t listen to music much at home, (except now when I’m preparing for my radio show… more on that later.) I only want quiet, so when I’m out at night, I’m  ready for tunes. So if the sound quality is atrocious and you have a tendency to turn up the volume which then magnifies its horribleness, well that’s another strike. Still, nobody’s perfect and you still have another strike before you’re out, so I’ll still come by at times. If the stools are very comfortable, that’ll definitely help.

Corruption. A while back a friend was having trouble with his Khmer ex-wife over custody of their daughter. The woman was a disaster for the kid so his big challenge was to gain custody. At one point his father came by to help grease the wheels of justice. When I talked to the father he had been here for 2 months and had spent $15,000 on grease.

I talked to the young fella after he was granted custody. He said it had cost $10,000, I guess the earlier $15,000 tranche was only for the preliminaries. Once the process was fully underway it had taken about 2 months to completion, without the extra dough he said it would’ve been 2 years. Three days after all the papers were signed and the deal done and dusted the judge called and said she’d change her mind unless they sent another $3000. The nice thing about living here, if you can afford it, is that justice is fungible, malleable, adaptable. At the same time I feel sorry for the poor bastard who can’t afford the proper grease.

Thieves. The big city has come to Kampot. There’s been a spate of bag-snatchings lately. It’s happening as early as 8 or 9 o’clock. There’re lots of not-well-lit places in our town that’re just off the beaten path. It sometimes happens while walking but mostly from motos. My only advice is to not carry around anything you don’t need for sure that night. You don’t need to carry around your passport, credit cards, and lots of money just to have a few drinks.

Odds and Ends. There’re lots of new bars opening or changing hands, I can’t even keep track anymore. However, being October, with a few exceptions, there aren’t a lot of customers. I’d love to stop in and say hello at all of them, but then I’d be neglecting the ones I’m already most comfortable at. There’re so many new venues, even the high season won’t save all of them. It’s the same old story. Lots of people come, want to stay and need some way to make money or just keep busy so they open another bar or restaurant or river bungalow resort. It makes them feel good and maybe they’ll be one of the lucky ones.

One of the new venues is Kampot Equinox featuring a piano, Frank the owner is going to import pianists from around the US. It’s a beautiful place and the food will be good so it should be successful. NOLA is now the Kampot Hilton (one of the owners’ last name is Hilton). They’ve done a nice job at remodeling and have set up a music room in the back. Next door is Simple Things, a vegetarian restaurant with great food that always seems to be busy. Tortulia, a Portuguese restaurant previously located across the river is moving to town and has rented a fine old colonial building in the center of town that was beautifully restored. It’s a corner building and has the advantage of wide sidewalks on both streets making for lots of outdoor seating. As a testament to Kampot’s changes, the building, which was restored about 8 or 9 years ago, has been sitting vacant all this time. The owner was asking $1000 per month, which back then was a ridiculous amount, but today very reasonable for such a great building and location.

I can’t finish this article without a mention of Indochine beer. They’ve got a wheat beer, which they call White, and an India Pale Ale. The White is very good, and interestingly it’s flavored with coriander and orange peel. It’s got a very nice fruity taste and it’s especially good if you like coriander, which I do. The IPA is excellent, among the best I’ve tasted, and while I’m not the world’s foremost beer critic I have spent a lot of time drinking beer and a lot of time in Portland, one of America’s primo craft brew locations. The only things that keep me from drinking it all the time are that it costs twice as much as the common beers and is hard to justify on my meager social security allotment. It’s also much stronger than your average cheap beer. It’s hard to tell exactly the alcohol content since they seem to be using the same label on both beers. The White is 5% but IPAs generally run about 6.5% and they certainly don’t include coriander in the brewing process. Right after I get paid I definitely indulge myself. The only problem with craft beers (aside from the extra cost) is they have a lot more calories. All that extra flavor comes from richer ingredients.

And finally a note about kampotradio.com. If you like radio with live DJs spinning the tunes, check it out. Since it’s internet radio, it’s available everywhere. I, being Kampot’s official, unofficial weatherman, do a one minute weather report six days a week which plays at noon, 2pm and 4pm. Lately I also do a music show four nights a week from 7 to 8pm Kampot time. For people reading this elsewhere we are 7 hours ahead of GMT. Eastern Standard time is 12 hours behind us. I mostly play those good old tunes… I may like the new stuff, but I don’t know hardly any of it.

 

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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.

 

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Kampot, Cambodia

Moto Mayhem, Riding the Rails… more

 

Moto Mayhem, Kampot’s semi-annual funky-bike drag race, took place at the end of April. It was a blast, as the estimated 200 hundred attendees would attest. Races were divided into three categories 50cc Chalys, 100 cc Daelims and 110cc Honda Wins and such. Newer bikes were excluded to keep the contests fair and anything over 110 was deemed to be too fast and getting into the possibilities of accidents and danger. Didn’t want to get too serious about it, it was just for fun. There was only one mishap which caused no injury. All dragsters were required to wear helmets.

Last time it was held outside of town with few spectators who were inclined to attend. This time the organizers got the bright idea to ask about using our Olympic stadium. With a concrete track, a viewing stand and location in the heart of town, it was the perfect spot. It took a bit of negotiating and convincing to get the authorities behind it, going all the way to the top gun to get approval, but in the end they realized it was going to be harmless enjoyment. It was put together by an all volunteer crew.

A 100 meter section of the track was reserved for the race and all the proceeds from the one dollar registration fee for dragsters – about $60 – was dedicated to purchase building materials to improve the space. Great trade-off. It was actually only the second time I’d been in the space and the first in daylight since I came to Kampot nine years ago, and I was impressed, they really are trying to make something worthy of it. In addition to the running track there’s a football pitch, which is somewhat scruffy to date, and a basketball court, so the city is committed to improve it.

There’s always the fear that they’ll sell it off for development and build something new far out of town. That’s exactly what the big timers in Phnom Penh talk about doing to its Olympic stadium. ‘It’s’ too valuable to be used for sports’ they say. Sure, that’s exactly what the capital needs: an Olympic stadium, the only public space outside of the riverside, turned into condos and malls, but that’s how people with money think and, I expect, many people in government too.

The Daelim class was won by a woman who’s married to a westerner. Four of the sixty racers were women. Curiously, she was approached by local bigwigs and told she shouldn’t be competing in that kind of race or hanging out with foreigners. Knowing her, I’m sure she told them – in a respectful way – to fuck off. And the winner’s time? 100 meters in 9.7 seconds, the same as an Olympic athlete.

The only drawback that I heard mention was that it took too long; it started at 1pm and finished at 5. There were only 2 racers at a time, the organizers thinking more would be potentially dangerous so it took a long time to go through the list. There were lots of curious locals and it seems likely a lot more people, both local and expat, will want to partake in the future so it may start to take too long and adjustments have to be made.

The weather for much of April was very unusual with frequent rains and, in some places in Cambodia, low temperatures. Whereas April in Kampot usually sees temperatures above 35C – 95F – and as high as 37, it rarely went above 32 or 33. And instead of severe drought, we had rain fall in 9 days in the first half of the month with one day of 77mm: That is an exceptional amount for any season. Now as I write in the beginning of May the temperatures are more normal, 36 lately. Kampot being near the sea, which serves as a modifying influence, never gets as hot or as cold as the interior of the country. Now in mid May, we’re having rain or at least heavy clouds almost every day, more like September, height of the rainy season, than May

On a related note: A sewage outfall in the north of Phnom Penh got so nasty recently that the many people living in houseboats who fish farmed from them were forced to flee by it’s rankness and the death of their fish. A government spokesperson said the fish deaths had nothing to do with the sewage, but was a result of global warming. Yeah, sure. Besides the fact that temperatures recently have been below average, climate change wouldn’t change conditions from one day to the next.

Sewage is generally thought of as toilet water, but in Cambodia very little of that goes into the sewers. Almost every house has it’s own septic tank. If you’re in Cambodia very long you’ll see funky old tanker trucks roaming around; they’re pumping out septic tanks. Some of the older houses have no tanks and some owners don’t empty their tanks in a timely manner, so it slows into the sewers, but except for that relatively small amount, there’s no shit in the sewers, it’s almost exclusively gray water – wash water – and rainwater. In America it’s all mixed together and sent off to a sewage treatment plant, even though gray water makes up more than 90% of the total. In a sense that is not an efficient way to organize waste water processing, since there’s no reason whatever that rainwater needs to go through the same complex process that toilet water does. Gray water can easily be processed in a plant if necessary, but the best, most ecological way is to filter it through wetlands, they do a great job of cleansing that wash water. Of course that takes up a lot of space.

The problem in America is the high cost of duplicating pipes and the difficulty in leaving sewage treatment to the individual. In Cambodia it seems to be no problem.

As usual after Khmer New Year in the middle of the month there was a precipitous drop in travelers. Some bars will always have some customers, but most are really slow. In this part of the world you have to make your money in high season and hope you can break even when the customer base fizzles out.

I finally got a chance to take the train. I hardly go anywhere anymore, so when the chance came I had to ride the rails. I’ve always loved trains and have even taken Amtrak across America – a 3 day trip – more than once. Amtrak’s a luxurious ride, but slow and lumbering. It does go up to 80mph – 130kph – but on a 3000 mile trip, it still feels sluggish and endless. A high speed train could do the trip in 10 to 12 hours.

The train from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, with stops in Kampot and Takeo, is hardly luxurious, but it’s a fine trip nonetheless. And while it does take 7 hours, the extra time is well spent. Kampot to PP takes 5 hours and since it takes two hours from S-ville to KP, it leaves at a leisurely 9am from KP, which fits right in with my dislike of early morning departures. You can bring your bicycle for an extra dollar, moto for two dollars, even a car, but not from Kampot.

The train I took was on a Sunday, it had four passenger cars and was mostly empty.

You could lay down and take a nap if you had a mind to it since some of the cars have (somewhat strange) lengthwise seating.

That makes it a bit awkward to look out the window, something I always want to do. On trains gazing out the window is far superior to road gazing since on the train you mostly see beautiful unabridged countryside rather than roadside trash, referring to both buildings and pure garbage.

Still with the empty car it was not a problem turning sideways to look out. The one car with more normal transverse seating was uncomfortable and also had suspension problems and bounced around a lot so I opted for the longitudinal. The cars are very clean and well-maintained, the toilets impressive, they were spotless, spacious – never seen one so big on a train – and spiffed out with brass fittings.

None of the seating was very comfortable, but would only be a problem in a crowded train. Besides you get to walk around, you’re not stuck in a seat with only small breaks to exercise your legs and move your bum. When you get tired of the air-con, you can open the car door and, while holding firmly on to the handrails of course, hang out the doorway and breathe hot fresh air while the countryside rolls by. I noticed unused stations along the way, and certainly the train should stop in Kep.

I was disappointed in the state of the tracks. They were fine as far as being straight and level, there was no getting tossed back and forth, but often the sections were not welded together. It’s brand new track so they were just being cheap and saving money by only bolting them together. When they’re not welded you get the clickity clack sound and with each clack a jerking or vibration. Otherwise the ride would’ve been smooth and perfect: certainly, magnitudes better than a bus ride.

The train rolled into Phnom Penh at 2pm, right on time. They give themselves lots of leeway: there’s a 20 minute break at Takeo for food; we were holed up on a siding for about 15 minutes – with only a single track, one train has to wait while the other passes by; it also moved at a snails pace once it got near the city. And good news: trains are now running every day, though on weekdays they operate in only one direction.

In fact that was the second time I took the train here. The last time was in 2002: A world of difference for sure. The train pulled into Kampot station at about 1pm, six hours after leaving Sihanoukville. I didn’t see any passenger cars so I went back to the ticket office and was told there were only boxcars on this line. The Battambang line still had passenger cars. After an hour lunch break and shuffling back and forth for I don’t know what reason, the train took off at 2pm.

The car I chose had a stack of poles upon which people were sitting, there were also several hammocks strung up. A local guy next to me asked where my hammock was… he was clairvoyant, I always carried my hammock with me back then. When I pulled out the hammock a woman said one dollar. I looked askance; could that be? She then said niyeah laing, literally speak fun. It turned out to be a lot more comfortable in a hammock than a real seat would’ve been let alone sitting on top of a stack of poles. Though maximum speed was 25kph, it mostly trudged along at 15kph. Still even at that slow pace the car bucked and bounced quite fiercely at times, making the hammock a perfect ride since it evened out that jostling.

At one station people had to move aside as 100kg sacks of salt were loaded on which were more comfortable to sit on than the poles. And at one point, with all the crew at the ready, while the train was moving, the logs were quickly, almost frantically, shoved out the boxcar door. We chugged into Phnom Penh at 11pm, a 9 hour trip for 175kms. It was an experience, all right, but I prefer the new incarnation.

Both lines shut down in 2003 and the new tracks were supposed to have been finished in 2008 or 2009, but it took until 2013 for the new tracks to be ready, the ballast wasn’t properly laid the first time and quite a bit of remedial work needed to be done. Freight trains were running for 3 years until the new passenger service was inaugurated.

In mid may it was announced that China is proposing to build new rail lines from the capital to Seam Reap and the Vietnam border as well as a high-speed train to Sihanoukville. I’m not sure if the traffic to S-ville would warrant the extreme cost of high speed, but whatever, any improvement is welcome. The question is what the Chinese will extract in compensation. Refurbishing the old lines cost $180 million and the right-of-way was already there. I expect that building those lines new would’ve cost several times as much. Trains are the most efficient way to travel, especially if powered with electricity.

Kampot radio is on the air. It’s now only on the internet – kampotradio.com – eventually maybe it’ll also be broadcast on FM. It’s mostly music now provided by Darryl who’s put the whole thing together, but people are quickly picking up time slots for talking and/or DJing. Yours truly is doing a daily weather report – I’m Stan the weatherman here in Kampot – which will expand from strictly weather to include more topics but mostly related to climate, I’m hoping for a call-in show, but that part is not ready yet.

An amazing thing happened recently on Kampot’s riverfront. I’ve been complaining right along about cars parking in the riverside park, then about a week ago they all, with a few rare exceptions, began parking on the curb where they belong. It’s more than just a problem for walking and enjoying the riverside, heavy vehicles wreck the paving tiles and are hard on the tree roots. I checked around but saw no signs. Then talking to a friend I discovered that the police had come by and told everyone not to park there. The surprising part is how almost everyone knew that prohibition without any signs. Regardless it’s a very welcome change: it was getting uncomfortable, and sometimes difficult to walk there.

A final note about the old bridge. It’s usable but not great for pedestrians. The old sections have narrow sidewalks, the new sections that replaced the bombed-out part have none so you’re dodging traffic, or I should say, traffic is dodging you… not a pleasant experience. It wouldn’t be that difficult and not even that expensive to hang a pedestrian walkway off one side of the bridge. In addition to serving people who need it for transportation, lots of people would go there just for the view. It would be a tourist attraction.

 

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Kampot, Cambodia

Speed Bumps Are Dangerous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

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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