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, Uncategorized

Bugger II – Kampot

 

The Tico saga continues. After receiving payment for the destruction of my little bugger at the hands of the cop’s drunken son, I had to think about what to do with the wreck. Back in the day when I had tools and the constitution to work on vehicles I would’ve parted it out and saved every tiny thing of any value, not just the almost new tires and good motor, but lights, wires, steering wheel, brakes, suspension, just about everything. But today, after just 30 seconds of bending over an engine my back starts to hurt.

So in order to save it, I’d’ve had to pay a mechanic to do the work and have the parts hauled over to my house, possibly to sit there for a long time gathering dust and rust. Besides I needed the $170 I got for the wreck to help pay for another car, which had to be a Tico since it’s the only car I can afford. There was nothing available in Kampot aside from a guy who specializes in fixing and sprucing them up and then charging a very pretty penny for them, certainly more than I could afford.

My only alternative seemed to be Phnom Penh where a website had three available. Moving around the capital can be a big hassle and it’s never a good idea to buy an old untested car and immediately take a road trip with it, so I hesitated. Then a friend noticed a new entry on the website for one located in Sihanoukville. It was advertised for $800 and looked identical to mine, same color, everything. I hadn’t been there in more than a decade, though it’s only 100k, and was curious, besides it’s a far simpler place to do things so I had to look at it.

And I had to buy it even though it had a serious motor problem. I was told it had had motor work done, but as the seller remarked, Khmer mechanics sometimes leave worse problems than they solve. But I’d been without a car for more than two months and though I’d been able to get around fairly well on my bicycle, and really appreciate the exercise, I was really hankering to get four wheels again… especially going home late at night with snarly dogs barking at my feet. I also needed it to carry stuff for my garden. I couldn’t see myself returning to Kampot empty-handed, so to speak.

The deciding factor was it being a virtual clone of the first bugger and that it’s in better shape than the first in several ways. Also, amazingly, the odometer had stopped working at almost exactly the same place as the first one, 202,000k. It made the journey back from Snookyville just fine and not long later I took it to my mechanic for some smallish problems and an estimate on the motor: he hears the motor and says it’ll probably cost $300. What? I remark figuratively, it’s a tiny 3 cylinder, 783cc motor that I can practically carry around even with my decrepit back. Yes, he says, but it costs the same to rebuild it as it does to rebuild a 4 cylinder 2200 Toyota. I was hoping for maybe a hundred or so for the repair. The motor doesn’t smoke and sounds good generally except for a piston slap problem at high revs, so if I were still in the trade, I’m sure I could do it cheaply.

Right off the bat, even as I was paying for the new one, I wished I’d saved the wreck. Not only did it have a good motor and a set of almost new tires – I bought two new ones for $75 just for the ride home from Sihanoukville – but the only body problem the new one has, except for the plastic bumpers and a grill held together with wire, is a hood that needs painting. In spite of the totalist nature of the wreck of the first, it had a perfect hood.

It’s also the nature of not having much money. The money not received for the wreck plus the cost of parting it out, would’ve set me back another month or two in the quest for a new car, so a double bind.

Barring another unexpected smashup, I’ll probably have it till I die or can no longer drive: I am 75 after all and I believe in doing whatever it takes to keep one running. I wrote an article back in March 2014 titled, An Old Car is Like a Wife. Once I get one, I’m virtually married to it. Whatever she needs, I give it to her, begrudging or otherwise. Getting a new one only sets you up for more unforeseen problems, Why not stick with what you know and have already learned about and dealt with? That attitude isn’t possible anymore in the states unless you can do the work yourself since $80 per hour for shop time makes even smallish jobs hellishly expensive. Here shop time is about $30 per day – though admittedly the quality is not always the same – and you can afford the money to try to make it all work right.

Unfortunately, my credit line is maxed out so it’ll take a few months before I can save the money to get the motor done and it’ll require lots of prayers and a feather light touch to keep it from blowing up before then.

Meanwhile, I got it just in time for very rainy weather, even bordering on deluge occasionally. We’ve only had a few hours of sun in two weeks. Starting on the 7th of August until the 21st as I write this it’s rained every day with two days of 70 and 77mm. Except for those two extreme days, it’s been in an odd pattern of raining hard for short periods five or ten times a day. I don’t remember such an unusual pattern (of course, there’s lots I don’t remember). At the same time that we on the coast have been hit hard, just 20 km inland, they’re in a drought. Unfortunately we don’t have a functioning weather station in Kampot so all predictions are made from a distance, so to speak. Though I’m an anti-TV freak, this is one time when an American style TV weather report would come in handy, you know; high pressure ridge, low stationary front, stuff like that.

Even though I did fine without a car for two months and really appreciate the exercise and would do fine again without one, I’ve gotten lazy: Especially if I think I’ll be coming home late I figure I’ll be better off with four wheels. Once I’ve had my fill of brew, two wheels can get a bit dicey. I always drive slowly and carefully at night and never get that drunk and there’s hardly anybody on the road, so it’s hard to find someone to hit, even if you had a mind to it.

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Kampot has been really slow this month, hardly any tourists passing through. The summertime mini-high season has barely been felt. People keep opening up new venues in spite of it all. If they can survive through the rainy season, they’ve got it made.

Wunderbar, a mainstay on the riverside for about 5 years, has closed for good. They’ll be missed by many. Madi Bar has been closed for renovations for two months now and is expected to open again in October… it promises to be greatly improved. For years it was the place to go on Thursday nights, a gathering of the tribes and a place to catch the Kampot Playboys. It’s been sorely missed by this old dancing fool. And without a car for the previous two months I wasn’t able to get across the river to Banyan Tree, the other place to catch the Playboys. I did however get my new wheels just in time for its 1st anniversary party; must’ve been at least 150 people dancing and having fun long into the night. It’s a very pleasant spot on the river and the rain held off for the duration… it’s mostly not under cover.

As for the Playboys, I’ve now heard them about 100 times and every time is so good, it’s like the first time. I can’t think of any band anywhere that I’d want to hear so often, but with the charismatic Chiet on guitar and vocals, a driving rhythm that won’t let you be still, and a crew so tight after playing together for years, you just gotta love ‘em even if all the vocals are in Khmer and you can’t understand a word.

Kampot now has a laundry-café, you know, have a drink or light meal while you do your laundry. Myself, I can’t think of a less attractive way to spend an hour or two, not only having to do my own laundry when it’s already so cheap to have it done.. and ironed, but the idea of all that whirring and chugging in the background while you’re hanging out, chillin’? I do however see people there and I wish them luck.

Several floating restaurants have set up on the river, some garishly lit up. They’re not supposed to set up permanently. Some are cruise boats that return around sunset and turn into bars or eateries. One just moves every day a short distance on the river and then returns next evening. The overly bright ones are a drag on the river’s ambiance and all together if there are too many it’ll degrade the experience. There may be a conflict with the authorities at some point, especially if a lot more turn up in high season.

There’s a boutique hotel just opened up. It’s appropriately called Kampot Boutique Hotel. The building is very classy and beautifully designed, I was impressed right from the beginning. There are people who come here who like and can afford creature comforts so they should do well. However it’s part of a syndrome which probably won’t end well. There’s a old saying: If you find the perfect place, don’t stay because it won’t be perfect anymore. As soon as a place gets ‘discovered’ it gets inundated with seekers of that ‘ideal’ spot.

The prime minister came to visit in early August and got the message from the citizenry – I’m not sure of the circumstances – that they wanted the old bridge reopened. As if by magic, within a few days, after about a year and a half of being closed off, it’s now open to pedestrians and two-wheelers. The closing had caused extra and unnecessary congestion on the new bridge and forced a circuitous route of at least an extra kilometer for many, so it’s a very welcome change.

Until 2010 it was our only bridge and carried all manner of vehicles except the really large ones. After the new one opened, it was progressively closed off to trucks and then cars. At a certain point the heavy metal plates that had reinforced the roadway were removed because they were curling at the ends and creating hazards. That then created a new hazard: There were rusted channels a half meter long or so and just wide enough for a moto tire to get caught in. After that happened a few times, it was completely sealed off… for no apparent reason, since a simple direction from the PM had it reopened in three days. A lot of people, probably including the local authorities, think it’s structurally unsound and it’s certainly not a place you’d want to see used by heavy vehicles, but bikes and motos could never be a problem and if the bridge were to fail under that miniscule load, it’d be easy to detect way ahead of time.

 

The above situation leads to a question of when Cambodia’s democracy (whatever there is of it) will graduate to letting people choose their mayors and governors. We now have commune elections on the lowest level of government – there are about 1700 in Cambodia – and national elections for parliament, but nothing in between. Because of that disconnect, local officials, who are all appointed by the ruling party, have little incentive to listen to their constituents and free reign to carry out their pet projects without question or challenge. For a word from the PM and a very small effort we have something the people have wanted for a long time. By the above I don’t mean to imply that our local government hasn’t done a pretty good job overall, just that a little citizen input would always make a difference.

We expats live in Cambo because of the opportunities it affords us, the low cost, the lifestyle of easy and minimal rules, and for many the great friends we’ve made. In parallel we complain about the corruption and inefficiencies of life, but I never lose sight of the fact that in many ways the US is just as corrupt and unfair.

For instance, the recent murder of Kem Ley, highly respected and loved by a large segment of the population, cast a shadow over the country. His funeral march, in a great outpouring of grief, stretched for 4 kilometers. The local government insisted it could only be a motorcade with no pedestrians, but overwhelming numbers, probably in the hundreds of thousands, overruled the rulers and the march went on without incident. However, one of the greatest events of the year wasn’t covered by any of Cambodia’s TV stations. They all had lame excuses, like it was Sunday so nobody was working, or trivial things too trivial for me to even remember.

All the TV stations in Cambodia are owned by or aligned with the ruling party so they had no interest in covering the event. In the agreement in 2014 that ended the opposition’s boycott of parliament, they were granted a TV license, which they are still trying to get together. But really, with smart phones and social media, TV has far less sway than in the past. Moreover, the little people of this country knew Kem Ley was someone they could trust to speak out. The PM insisted he had nothing to do with his murder saying he had nothing to gain, which is at least partially true since just about everybody in the country who isn’t a diehard CPP supporter has assumed that he or someone in the party was behind it. Still, an important and independent (he also criticized the opposition at times) voice was silenced and fear was generated in others who are called to speak out.

How’s that stack up with the US? The head of one of America’s broadcast TV channels said that Trump might be bad for America but he was good for their profits: The result was they gave him 82 minutes of free air time on their nightly newscast in 2015. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, who drew more people to his rallies than any other candidate on either side was given 20 seconds. Is that any different than Cambodia?

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

Karma Strikes Again

 

 

Around the middle of May just as I was leaving my house for my nightly bar crawl it started to rain. Most of the day I’d been planning to ride my bicycle the one mile down to the riverside entertainment area. Whenever I figure I’ll be coming home late I’d take my car, a Tico, affectionately referred to as the Little Bugger. It’s really small and exceptionally cute and has a 780cc motor, smaller than some motorbikes. When I expect to go home early I’d take the bike… exercise is always good.

The rain wasn’t hard, but I thought, I’ve got a car, let me be lazy and avoid the rain. I parked it on the river near O’Neil’s bar. I usually wind up there, but till then walk wherever else I plan to go.

About 9 o’clock as one of the staff was leaving, she started to pull her moto out into the traffic, you know how lots of us will start moving before we look closely, besides it was late enough for there to be very little traffic. At that moment, a small model Lexus SUV came barreling down the street driving erratically, going at least 100kph. When the driver, probably drunk, saw the moto pulling out he slammed on the brakes and swerved left to avoid her.

His trajectory was aimed directly for my car which was parked at the curb. His skid marks stretched about 20 meters. He walloped the little bugger right between the doors and the force of the crash lifted the Tico over the curb and dropped it sideways perpendicular to the roadway.

In the next second or so the Lexus smashed into a motorbike about 10 meters further down the street and then hit a tuk-tuk and somehow wound up just inside the park on its side facing the opposite direction from where it came. The tuk-tuk driver, who had been sitting in his vehicle, was pinned underneath the Lexus. There were quite a few people in the park at the time and they quickly pushed the car off of him. In the ensuing confusion, the driver and his passenger hoisted themselves out of the car and took off without anyone to stop them. If someone had just happened to be shooting a video at the time it would’ve been an instant hit.

All this happened at lightning speed. I’d been sitting in the bar, heard the commotion, hesitated a second or two, then went out to discover my Tico had been totaled. By the time I went the few meters further to check on the Lexus, the tuk-tuk driver had already been pulled out. He was sitting up, but in a daze, and died an hour or so later on the way to a hospital in Vietnam. The guy left a wife, who has a heart problem so can’t work, and four kids. Now that’s the definition of a tragedy: good guy that everybody likes, with heavy responsibilities, gets killed in a fluke accident. In a couple of seconds, his family was irrevocably changed.

It’s also a demonstration of the two diametrically opposed sides or meanings of karma. The one side exemplified by the saying, What goes around comes around. Do good and good comes back, do bad and eventually you get your just deserts; if not in this life than surely in the next. The other side of karma reflects cosmic uncertainty, the absolute and utter lack of control we have over our lives. What will be will be. There’s no questioning it. Railing against the gods for the unfairness of life gets you nowhere. Life Is, and while we may and should strive to be exemplary in our lives, ultimately, serendipity rules and there’s nothing we can do except accept whatever vagaries life hands us.

I also played a hand in the poor guys death in that if I hadn’t been lazy my car wouldn’t have been sitting in that very spot and the Lexus might have barreled straight through and landed in the river, certainly a better and fairer outcome. But no, you can’t go there. If my car wasn’t there somebody else’s might’ve been or there might’ve been people walking who would’ve gotten mowed down. Any number of ‘what ifs’ could’ve intruded on circumstances, but you can’t dwell or obsess over them; you can’t change the past.

The two facets of karma can be extended to the conundrum represented by the dual and contradictory existence of both free will and predestination. Everybody has the right to choose, but it’s all been laid out from the beginning of time. The concept is also beautifully expressed by the Rolling Stones song that goes, You don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need. You don’t get what you want: ultimately it’s beyond our control. If you try sometime: if you exercise your free will for the good, then, You get what you need: the gods provide us with the lessons we need to advance spiritually.

The car was owned by a cop as evidenced by the placard in the window, but one fellow who’d seen the guys exit the car remarked that they looked too young to be cops. I gave my telephone number and such to the police and then waited a couple weeks before I thought I’d better check so I went to them. When I got to the police compound I saw the Tico, the Lexus, the crashed moto and overturned tuk-tuk. A Khmer friend went with me, we inquired and were told not to worry, it would all get straightened out. I also was told that he wouldn’t get his car back until he settled with everybody.

Still no word for a couple more weeks, so I went back to discover the Lexus and other wrecked vehicles gone and my little bugger sitting there all by itself. I was really exercised there for a bit and called our friendly immigration cop to find out what was happening. Meanwhile we had learned that it wasn’t the cop who did the damage, but his son. A meeting was arranged between me and the owner of the Lexus.

Rumors had been circulating that he’d initially offered the family of the deceased tuk-tuk driver $2000. Imagine, the life of a husband and father for such a pittance. So I meet the guy, who it turns out is the head of the local fire department. First he tries to weasel out of responsibility by asserting that my car was parked improperly. No, no, no I say, it was exactly where it was supposed to be parked. Then I hear that his car was taken by his son of his first wife, from his second wife’s house, without permission while he was off in Phnom Penh on official business.

I tell him I should get $1000 since I’d paid more than that just a year earlier. He offers $300. I said you’re joking, yes? Then I get his hard luck story about how he’s had to borrow to pay for all the damages and to fix his car. I originally thought his Lexus was worth a lot but discovered that it’s a 1999 model and worth around $9000. I say I feel sorry for you, but there’s no reason I should suffer because your son wrecked my car. I say, My car was sitting there peacefully, just minding its own business when your son came along to destroy it. I tell him I can’t buy another car for $300 and I have no money in the bank. I wound up lowering my price to $800, figuring getting a grand was a lost cause. Over the next couple weeks, he wore me down and I went to $600, he came up to $500. At that point I said I’d never take less than six and he finally got the message that I was adamant and immovable on that point.

After the money was counted, both he and the immigration cop who’d been negotiating and translating for me, took a picture of both of us holding the money. A good way to guarantee a transaction took place and nobody can claim otherwise. Then the immigration guy said I needed to give some money to the department, suggesting $30. I made a face and said, How about twenty? Okay, he says. Then I say, How much for you? The same? He said ten was okay for him, but I gave him twenty anyway.

I had heard from two people, an expat and the immigration cop that the accident had cost him ten grand, but from a tuk-tuk driver friend I was told the family of the deceased only got $2,800 from him. So where’d the rest of the money go? To the courts to keep his son out of prison? Would he have to pay his own bosses to keep the whole mess quiet? It wasn’t going to cost that much to fix his car in spite of everything. Certainly, by Cambodian law, compensation to victims does not exonerate the perpetrator, it’s not a substitution for serving time for breaking the law, and I told the guy his son should be in prison.

The guy and the town’s government got off easy since somehow the news of the accident never made it to the newspapers. It would have been far different if they’d had to answer questions to the press of how the destroyer got off without incarceration and would’ve exposed the workings of corruption here.

I did have a little sympathy for the cop, he went through plenty of changes himself over actions of his bad boy son. He’s just trying to live his middle class life (on a subsistence salary) and kaboom, he’s had to take on a lot of debt and go through a lot of hassle. Can I blame him for trying to get off cheap? Well, yes I can and do, but wouldn’t a lot of people react like him under the same circumstances? Wouldn’t most people under financial pressure try to minimize their burden if given the chance?

And his son: How many guys do you know who haven’t done crazy things when they were young? I’ve driven quite dangerously in my life, including not so long ago when I first bought a car here. In my case though, I was never under any illusions that if I did cause real damage I’d pay heavily for it. And I never drive the least bit carelessly when I’ve been drinking. The police and their offspring, part of the elite in this country, don’t worry so much about those things because they feel confident they’ll be able to avoid real consequences. They feel impunity is their birthright. It also happens in nearly every country. For instance, a few days after G.W. Bush took office his daughter was busted for underage drinking and let off scot free while hundreds of young people without connections had gone to jail under a new Texas law that Bush promoted that sharply increased penalties for just such transgressions.

Impunity relieves you of paying for your bad behavior in this life, but karma is forever. The young destroyer will live with his murderous act as long as he lives. He’ll feel privileged that he didn’t have to pay for his crime, but that only applies in this life. He will pay in his conscience, if he has one, for all his days. Maybe he’ll block it out, pretend it never happened. Maybe he’s truly arrogant and thinks that peasant lives don’t mean much anyway. But karma can’t be discounted, the cosmos never forgets.

Getting back to the Stones; If you don’t try sometimes; that is, if you never seek to align your karma, energy and thinking with righteousness and enlightenment, if you always see only ego and advantage over others, if you focus only on the baser aspects of life, you certainly won’t get what you need to move up in consciousness and spirituality. If you succeed economically, you’ll still not be happy inside. You could be like Bill Gates who, in spite of being the world’s richest person, still lied and cheated and used sleazy underhanded methods to amass additional wealth. I’m referring to the several times his company was indicted and fined in both the US and EU for anti-competitive behavior, who promised as part of the settlements to give up his nefarious ways, but who nonetheless reverted as fast as lightning.

No amount of wealth can compensate for lack of a spiritual foundation. I don’t care how much Gates gives away to charitable causes (some of which I heartily disapprove of; such as charter schools, GM crops) he’ll still reincarnate (if you believe in those things) as a peasant farmer with a hardscrabble life or maybe a cockroach; that is, if he doesn’t cop to his sleazeball ways in this life. If you believe in the Christian heaven and hell, he’ll either go straight to hell or spend eons taking remedial courses in empathy and integrity in a kind of half-way house. Think about it: fabulous wealth in one short mortal life in exchange for eternal life? Is there any question?

It isn’t for nothing that one of the most famous verses in the bible is when Jesus says, It’s harder for a rich man to get to heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Rich people never have to rely on faith or serendipity, never have to live in uncertainty. They always have what they want so they never get to experience the workings of cosmic energies and synergies. They never learn to trust in love and faith.

Kampot was hit by another heartbreaking tragedy recently. Two young fellas, 33 and 38, attending the same party, died from taking some type of white powder purchased from a tuk-tuk driver. They’d also been drinking heavily. Two young lives snuffed out from… what? Carelessness? The need to escape, to binge? (one guy was nursing a broken heart). Feeling of invincibility, like it can’t happen to me?

The loss of those lives was totally unnecessary, but they had a choice to make, not like the tuk-tuk driver who’s life was taken by a fluke accident. It’s not for us to understand why these things happen, the laws of karma can not be described or pigeonholed or made to fit into our notions of how things work or are supposed to work. You can never make a direct connection. If there’s any meaning or value in these events it’s only that we’re beholden to be conscious and conscientious in all our actions and strive to be good because you never know when a cosmic zinger may zap you out of this mortal coil. You don’t want to get caught short.

 

 

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Karma – Accidents Happen

About ten years ago I was out walking in the wee hours on Street 13 in Phnom Penh. It was around 2 AM, a time when traffic is nearly nonexistent. I was walking north approaching St. 148, which goes through the heart of Psar Kandal. A young Khmer guy was heading in the same direction, driving his motorbike as fast as it would go. Just as he reached 148, two guys shot out of 148 heading east towards the river. They were about 10 meters apart also driving as fast as their bikes would take them. That’s a blind corner and as such none of the three could see anyone coming in the other direction until the last moment.
When the single guy saw the two, he made a slight feint trying to avoid a direct hit on the first bike, but as it happened he didn’t need to, he would’ve come through the middle just behind the first guy, by a nose hair, as it were. I don’t remember if that near death moment caused the guy heading up 13 to make any adjustment to his driving; that is, whether he actually slowed down a little at the next intersection to see if anybody was coming. The two guys on 148 were out of my vision.
The margin of safety in that most remarkable incident came down to a split second. The slightest change in timing for any one of the three would’ve almost certainly meant death or awful disfigurement for at least two of them. Moreover the chances of coming across another vehicle in one’s path at 2 AM is extremely small, so it’s easy to see how those young guys who probably always drove fast, would blow off the possibility of something like that happening.
I’ve often pondered that incident, wondering if it made any difference to their lives, if maybe it caused them or any one of them to think about the meaning of life and chance and karma. Did they take it as a sign that they’re invincible, that they could do any kind of crazy stunt and never suffer consequences? Or did the reality of their extremely lucky break bring thoughts of mortality and the thin thread that life hangs by?
The way people drive in Cambodia can be thought of as pure reaction. You never know when an errant vehicle can be coming at you or what direction it’s coming from or if it’s going to cut in front of you and get in your path, so you’re always ready to react and maneuver to safety. This is just opposite from how it works in the US, where if you stay in your lane, keep a safe distance and watch for brake lights you can drive almost unconsciously. When driving in Cambodia you have to be on high alert at all times.
I witnessed another incident recently which turned into an accident, but really shouldn’t’ve of happened because of the timing and lack of traffic. This time the participants were not so lucky, but that’s the definition of the word accident, something unplanned and unexpected. I had just gotten in my car parked on Kampot’s riverside, heading home. It was 10.30 in the evening; trafficwise about the same as Phnom Penh at two in the morning; that is, almost nobody on the street. Right in front of my car was a motorbike. Just as I started the car three young locals approached the bike, two got on, but when the third tried, the driver moved forward a bit, teasing, playing a game. This went on for a bit, then the third guy, without a glance at the road since he was lost in their game, dashed out across the road into the opposite lane right in front of a motorbike going very fast. He was hit by the motorbike dead on at speed without even a second for the driver to apply the brakes. I was surprised when he was able to sit up after a couple of minutes and then, with help, make it to the curb. I thought he was dead or at least severely broken up.
Both people share the blame/fault in that one, but I think slightly more of the responsibility goes to the pedestrian. No matter what time it is when you’re on a public road, and in this case a thoroughfare, you have to stay aware of any possible danger. The driver also is at fault because of his speed. Going at a reasonable speed the others might’ve had time to see him coming. The pedestrian was so oblivious, he might’ve still run in front of the bike, but with the bike moving slower he wouldn’t’ve been hurt as badly.
In another incident from about ten years ago in Phnom Penh a fellow teacher came to work with his arm in a sling. Just like Denver or Portland in winter when you see someone on crutches, you can pretty much figure they had a skiing accident, I said, motorbike, huh? He went on to describe it. He was a passenger riding home on a motodop at 4 AM. Four AM? He was riding on a wide thoroughfare, only one other vehicle in sight, a motorbike coming in the other direction. He needed to turn left but in doing so his driver cut in front of the oncoming bike. Confusion ensued, each not knowing what the other was going to do and they did a little moto dance before Kabang!
I had a similar incident happen to me, though it didn’t result in an accident. An old motodop friend of mine offered to take me home late at night. I almost always walk when I’m in Phnom Penh, at least partly because I intensely dislike riding motorbikes, so I almost always refused him. This time I said ok, what the hell. So the same thing happens, he cuts in front of another bike coming the other direction, they’re momentarily confused not knowing how to respond to each other, but they figure it out and all is well. That was partly true because neither were traveling very fast (my friend knows how much going fast would bend me out of shape). That’s exactly why I don’t like riding motos, I said. What was wrong with that, was his response, there was no problem. For him it was totally normal, happens all the time. Nevertheless that type of driving is inherently dangerous, which is reflected in Cambodia’s very high accident rate.
It all comes down to poor understanding of the rules of right-of-way and correct or safe driving practices. The person going straight always has the right-of-way over one turning. If when cutting in front, you force the vehicle going the other way to slow down, you are in the wrong, and putting yourself in danger: what if the other vehicle’s driver gets momentarily distracted?
Actually, in Cambodia it only works that way between like vehicles; that is, car to car or bike to bike. Cars have right-of-way over motorbikes, but that still requires the car driver to leave lots of room for the moto to slow down. Vehicles on a wide street always have priority over those coming from side streets. The above are all no-brainers and the fact the incidents described all happened when traffic was very light, only emphasizes the importance people staying aware and of the rules being followed.
Driving the wrong direction is another problem, though I must admit it’s sometimes irresistible when riding a bicycle. The same right-of-way confusion happens. If I’m on my bicycle riding close to the curb and someone on a two-wheeled vehicle turns left and drives the wrong direction in my pathway, how does right-of-way work? Do I continue to hug the curb and force the other one into the traffic or do I move out and let the other have the curb? I usually hold my ground and stay by the curb, otherwise to feel safe I’d have to turn my head and look back, which is not a good idea when someone is coming right at you. Of course the point is moot in terms of right-of-way since driving the wrong direction is never allowed, even when it’s really inconvenient to do it properly.
Since it doesn’t take long to go anywhere in Kampot because it’s a small town and traffic is not heavy people drive more slowly, they’re not in as much of a hurry as a Phnom Penh driver who has relatively far to go and has to fight heavy traffic to get there. The bigger the city, the faster people drive and the more chances they take. It follows then that more rules need to be made and enforced. But one of the reasons we like being here is the paucity of rules and minimal paperwork, so there’s always a tradeoff.
The challenge rises along with the traffic count. Kampot with 40,000 people has no traffic lights, all crossings are handled informally. When I first visited Cambodia in 1994 there was little traffic, some of the major thoroughfares weren’t paved, there were no rules and none were needed. In 2001 when I returned to stay traffic had increased greatly but still lots of people routinely ignored traffic lights, lots of streets were still unpaved and there were no real traffic jams. Today it’s become a bear and a bore to move around the capital during peak hours, but for sure most people now obey traffic lights and wear helmets. The bad driving habits which have little impact on traffic – but can still be dangerous – when traffic is light, can turn into gridlock when traffic is heavy. There are jams that happen almost every day in parts of the capital that last 10 to 20 minutes and take a cop or two to untangle.
In Kampot hardly anyone wears a helmet, maybe 10% to the capital’s 90%. But it can be just as dangerous. Even if most people drive relatively slowly, there’re always going to be hot-shots and cowboys who drive very fast even when there’s lots of competing traffic. I did it myself when younger and also not so long ago so I’m not sure what can change that bad habit. Enforcement of speed limits seems a long way off. The only thing that might help is education; right-of-way, safe driving practices and such. Even if you’re driving fast in the states you don’t cut corners or drive the wrong direction.
All the way back in elementary school we learned when you’re out at night you’re supposed to wear something white or light colored, otherwise, especially if you’re wearing black, you are invisible, drivers can not see you till they’re very close. Even if it isn’t always stylish and I really want to wear all black, I feel I must have something light-colored on at night. The ultimate is a guy out at night wearing black on a motorbike with no lights and not even a license plate. When I’m driving at night sometimes the plates are the first thing I see, as bright as the rear running light. In fact, I have a couple of friends here in Kampot who at times have driven lightless bikes at night. That’s really challenging the gods. In addition to speedsters, there might also might be someone, an old geezer perhaps, who hasn’t got the best night vision. The last thing you want to be out on the road is invisible. I can see poor locals riding lightless bikes because they don’t have the money or would rather spend the money they do have on food, but I suspect it mostly has to do with laziness and nonchalance. The minimal cost should never be a hindrance to an expat driving blind.
The capper is driving drunk. In the 13 years I’ve been in Cambodia, I’ve known 6 guys who killed themselves driving motorbikes when drinking. I can’t say they were all falling down drunk when they bought it, but it doesn’t always take that much alcohol for your timing to be off just enough to make the difference between a miraculous escape from a close call and smithereens. A seventh case is notable though my friend wasn’t the one who died. He was out with a friend drinking, both riding on his big bike. They got back to the guest house, but his friend insisted on going back out and doing the driving. My friend tried to talk him out of it, but eventually relented. They went out and the friend promptly killed himself and put my friend in the hospital for months.
Nevertheless, I regularly drink and drive and, under certain assumptions and limits, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. Obviously, I’m not talking about being pissed blind, a little tipsy the most. The assumptions are that it’s late at night when traffic is nearly nil and you have the presence of mind to drive slowly and carefully. It must be said I drive a car at night and four wheels is a lot more stable than two. At midnight in Kampot, you have to go far out of your way to find someone to crash with so if you’re focused on safety, you should never have a problem getting home (hopefully you’re not driving to additional bars to take yourself over the top). Of course, you could be that ‘unlucky’ person in the unfortunate position of having your senses dulled just enough to not be able to avoid an accident situation caused by someone else who’s out of line. It really can happen any time, that’s karma, but you still have to try to keep it clean on your side. When I see a guy stagger out of the bar and have trouble just getting on his bike, but then he revs it up and speeds off, I think, that joker’s really asking for it.
I once got a ride during my hitchhiking days by a guy who drove very fast, consistently 80 to 90mph – 135 to 150kph, on two lane highways. I wasn’t all that comfortable, but when you’re hitching you generally take what you can get. I did comment about it and he said he’d always driven fast and even had three accidents at high speed, always walked away and never got more than scratched: that’s karma. He considered himself invincible. On the other hand, there’s a heartbreaking story from a few years ago about a couple who were in Phnom Penh traveling with their four children. The woman, after drinking some, got on the back of a moto; the driver started up (maybe it was jerky or fast, I really don’t know) she fell backward and broke her neck and died, leaving her husband with the kids: also karma.
One night locals found Donkey, a Kampot fixture, lying on the side of the road with his bike overturned, and notified the cops. They came by, asked him what he was doing there. He said he was too drunk to drive, so they gave him a ride home and got his bike there too. Too bad it’s not always that easy.

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