Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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