Kampot, Cambodia, US Politics

Dreary October in Kampot

 

 

It’s been a dreary October so far with rain every day for almost three weeks. Some people are getting that old cabin fever feeling, except it’s so warm, getting out and wet seems no big deal. It’s not like when you were a kid and purposely went out to wade and splash in the heaviest rain, but once you’re out there caught in a torrent, What the hell? Of course having lived in western Oregon where it’s cloudy and/or rainy and cold – well, cool anyway – for at least six months a year and worked outdoors for much of that time, I barely notice the rain. Paradoxically, while it’s warm enough to not mind the rain, it’s generally cool compared to other seasons, so quite comfortable, even if humidity is very high.

Since I’ve become Kampot’s official, unofficial weatherman, I’ve taken on the burden of reporting from the web and keeping track of local stats. To that end I have a simple five dollar plastic rain gauge to measure precipitation. It can’t go wrong, not like one digital gauge I had which read way off. I’ve got a weather station with indoor and outdoor temperature and humidity and barometer. In order to get an accurate outdoor temp I have what’s called a Stevenson box. It’s a wood box with louvers on all sides to allow air to flow through. It’s painted white to reflect all sunlight and has a small roof over it to prevent direct overhead sun and it’s 1.3 meters off the ground to prevent radiant heat from the ground affecting the reading. I caught a lot of flack for my (incorrect) readings before I got the Stevenson.

I generally use Weather Underground website for predictions, not because it’s necessarily more correct, but because it’s easier to use and the site goes into technical details about big storms and such, not that I understand all that much about the science, but it’s just

kinda interesting to get a glimpse of the deeper aspects of the game. It’s easy enough to get an accurate anemometer – wind gauge – but I’m lazy about getting it high enough to get a proper reading.

The Weather Underground Kampot page frequently says ‘station offline’ anywhere from 1 hour to 70 hours. In fact, we do have a station here but it’s inoperable, so where then do they get their information from? I assume Phu Quoc since it has the closest functioning station, but being an island, the weather, especially temperature and wind speed, is going to be much different than Kampot which is about 9 kilometers inland. Large bodies of water moderate temperature. When it’s hot, Phu Quoc will be a little cooler than Kampot, which will be a little cooler than inland. When it’s cool the opposite happens, locations on or near water will be a little warmer.

Every year is strange or different or exceptional when it comes to weather: no two years can ever be the same. Still, this year so far has been an odd one. There was an exceptional drought until May when we got 300mm. June and July were relatively light, but August was very heavy at 378mm until the 22nd when a 2 week very hot dry spell began. Then September came in at the lowest since May. Very odd. October is charging back. On October 17 we received nearly 90mm in less than 2 hours and more than 100 overall that day. It was a record, at least since I got my rain gauge three years ago. October’s on track to be the heaviest month.

I’m currently trying to manifest a couple more rain gauges to place around town since other people sometimes report much heavier rains than I do, but since they don’t have regulation gauges, it’s all anecdotal and impossible to confirm. Better yet would be to have personal weather stations hooked up to Weather Underground’s international network. For a ‘mere’ $450 – the cost of a semi-professional Davis weather station – Someone here could put Kampot on the weather map.

There is great confusion as to Cambodian climate, even official publications sometimes get our climate all wrong. I have a map put out by a government agency which has a graph that shows August as the rainiest month nationwide with September half as much and October almost nothing, when in fact the latter two are generally the heaviest months. In Phnom Penh and other points north it’s October which is the heaviest month. Even here in Kampot, different websites have diverse statistics. Like one says August is heaviest and another October.

It’s hard to pin down variables by month with so many differing numbers but annually, they’re relatively consistent. Phnom Penh receives about 1.4 meters of rain a year, most areas in the north a bit less. Kep gets 2.2 meters, Kampot 2.4 meters. Sihanoukville gets 3.5 meters and Koh Kong beats all with 3.8 meters a year… soggy town.

I’ve become the go-to guy for predictions since I’ve become Stan the Weatherman, but I’m not a meteorologist, I just report what I see or read. However you don’t need a weatherman to know that stormy conditions are ahead around the region and the world.

Thailand’s king has died after years of spending most of his time in the hospital. Next in line, the crown prince has said he wants to wait a year before he takes up his responsibilities (he’s too busy being a royal playboy and ass). As opposed to Bhumipol who was revered, Vajiralongkorn is widely reviled, hardly anybody likes him, but because of Thailand’s very strict Lese Majeste law it’s not possible to comment in public. Criticizing anyone in the royal family is an easy 15 year sentence and the current military government has been very zealous in finding and prosecuting offenders. If I were in Thailand, having made the above comments, I might be in for rough times.

Many people I talk to here are concerned about or are predicting unrest. The generals seem to have the situation under control, but intense anger remains in the opposition camp over having their consistent electoral wins hijacked by the military, which is backed by the Bangkok elite. The opposition reds fought hard: they haven’t gone away and neither have their grievances, though the elite is starting to catch on to the need to serve the whole population. For instance, a loyalist interviewed on radio, when referring to Taksin’s low cost health care for villagers, said, It’s a bitter pill but we have to swallow it, referring to the need to adopt the same policy. The guy was in agony over having to match Taksin’s generosity to the peasantry: it was no longer politically possible to ignore the wider people’s needs.

The military got its new constitution passed, partly because no campaigning against it was allowed. It gives the military virtual veto power over legislation and it included an electoral system which makes it hard for a single party to win a majority. Taksin was the first and only leader to receive an absolute majority in the history of Thai elections and he or his party did it multiple times. Many expats who’ve spent time in Thailand despise Taksin and insist that he only won by buying votes, but I don’t buy it. He might’ve been the country’s richest person, but the Bangkok establishment aren’t exactly paupers either. What’s more, buying votes is a long Thai tradition. When I lived there, it was common knowledge that all the parties did it.

Repression only works so long, especially with a people so used to demonstrating and voicing their opinions. And with no king to calm things down, to prevent conflagration and confrontation, there may be some fireworks ahead on our western border.

As a lifetime lefty, I give Taksin a lot of credit for thinking about the masses. People who hate him say he only did it to gain power, that he really didn’t care. That may be true but regardless, he’s the first one to take their needs into account. Taksin haters should hate the ruling class; i.e., themselves, for being so stupid and clueless that it never occurred to them to think about the needs of the proletariat and the electoral advantage that would give them.

Taksin on the other hand was thoroughly corrupt: he had a special law enacted to allow him to sell his billion dollar telecom empire without paying taxes. He was also a mass murderer. The focus now is on Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for extrajudicial killing of ‘drug dealers’ but Taksin wrote the playbook on that one. 2500 people were killed in the first few months of his administration. Say what you will about the awfulness of drugs and the need to suppress their use and distribution if you believe that’s appropriate, but when 2500 people die without benefit of a fair trial and the ability to defend themselves, you can be absolutely certain that somewhere between 5% and 20% were either innocent or guilty of crimes so insignificant they would at most net a short stint in jail or rehab in an advanced country. So then, how many good guys is it okay to kill for every 100 bad guys removed from society? Is there a point at which the sacrifice of good guys goes too far? What’s acceptable? One innocent for every 100 guilty? Ten for every 100? Twenty?  Is any number acceptable?

When Obama cautioned Duterte about his killing spree, the latter told Obama to butt out, said the Philippines wasn’t America’s colony anymore and called him what’s variously translated as a son of a bitch or son of a whore. In another tirade he told Obama to go to hell. He also said he didn’t care if 3 million died. Wow, only Hitler could claim a bigger genocide than that. The country’s drug office estimates there are 1.8 million addicts in the Philippines, not even 2% of the population. All that spilled blood for 2%.

Duterte toned down his murderous rhetoric very quickly after the head of the International Criminal Court suggested she was going to look into the situation there. Suddenly he didn’t know anything about it. Mass murder is a crime against humanity. Brought to trial he would likely spend the rest of his life in prison, and deserve every minute of it.

When a government spokesperson was asked, What about alcohol and gambling? He could only muster a blank stare. As if alcohol doesn’t cause more problems than illegal drugs. Besides it’s the illegality of drugs which causes most of the problems associated with them. If they were legal they’d cost a lot less and people who need them wouldn’t have to commit illegal acts to get their fixes. There’d be no gangs and mafia to run the trade. Gambling has destroyed many lives, turned many families into paupers. How about arresting people for being fat, obesity takes years off your lifespan.

America has its own Duterte, aka, Trump. And he could easily have become US president if he weren’t so much a boor, buffoon and serial abuser. I know I’m making an assumption here in the third week of October, but the composite polls have Hillary with a 96% chance of winning. She was at less than 60% chance about a month ago, but his awful first debate performance followed by his grossly inappropriate bragging about sexual abuse started the dive. The only other presidential candidate in the history of polling to achieve Trump’s abysmal approval ratings is Clinton, though she fares just a bit better, so if he were just halfway plausible presidential material he could’ve had it. Now with him whining about the election being rigged by the media and vote stealing by Hillary, thus firing up his base with barely veiled calls for violence, there could easily be turmoil after the election. Democrats were angry enough after Bush stole the 2000 election but liberals aren’t the type to take up arms.

Fact is, Hillary did steal primary elections: In the Massachusetts primary every precinct with hand counted ballots went for Bernie, every precinct with machines that can be manipulated went for her. In a state with more than 7000 precincts, astronomical odds. Anyway in a close race, she would’ve needed those thieving skills, because of the Repugs long history of election theft. The first Repug to steal an election was Chuck Hagel, senator from Nebraska. Leading up to the election the Dem was ahead in all the polls and was ahead in exit polls on election day. But he won in a landslide, even winning by a large margin in the state’s few African-American precincts, which had never voted Repug before. After the election it turned out he was part owner of the company that ran the election. Many elections in the US have been outsourced to the private sector. All the companies who run elections are owned by Repugs. Their machines leave no paper trail and the software code is proprietary so the people aren’t allowed to see how the machines work or if anything is amiss. A perfect scam and the decider of many recent elections.

As for the accusation of media bias, that’s rich coming from a candidate that was showered with free time during the primaries. ABCs nightly newscast devoted 82 minutes to Trump in 2015, while giving only 20 seconds to Sanders, even though Sanders drew more people to his events than any other candidate on either side. The CEO remarked that Trump might be bad for the country but he was great for the company’s bottom line, so he was happy to pump up Trump on prime time.

The good thing is Trump is destroying the Repug party, pitting the know-nothings against the batshit crazies. Some Repugs think it’ll take a decade for the party to recover. Democrats will also be in turmoil after putting in office a person in the top job who’s widely reviled and despised. If you think Obama’s divided the country and brought gridlock to congress, she’ll be a lightning rod of anger, vitriol and discontent. The Dems could’ve had someone who was loved and respected across the board, but they chose old-style status quo politics, just what supporters of both Bernie and Trump were railing against. Being a corporate whore, she’ll be bad for the country, but still far superior to Trump. At least she’s presidential material; he’s an upchuck of mental diarrhea.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike her and her politics, but if there was one reason, if there was only one reason to vote for her it’s the supreme court. Justices are appointed for life. Considering the present make up of the court and that two of the oldest members are liberals, if she gets in there’ll be a 5 to 4 majority of liberals. If Trump were to win it’d be 7 to 2 or 6 to 3 conservative and the country would be set back at least a generation.

 

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Rainy Daze Kampot

For a month now it’s been cloudy nearly every day. When it hasn’t been raining it’s been threatening. There’ve been lots of light rains, but when it’s really come down, it’s been the proverbial cats and dogs. One morning in the space of three or four hours we got 135mm or 5 1/2 inches of rain, the most I’ve ever seen accumulated at one time in the seven years I’ve had my $5 plastic rain gauge. Before that we had a five day period in early July with 250mm or 10 inches, it just didn’t want to stop.

More recently Phnom Penh received 103mm in one storm and the authorities called it the most ever recorded. Doesn’t sound right. Maybe it was because of years of poor recordkeeping: hard to say. We get quite a bit more rain than the capital, so maybe ours was also a record. We have a weather station in Kampot, but it isn’t functional, so I’ve become Stan the Weatherman by using my cheap (well $80) weather station, reports from Weather Underground and info from friends even more into it than I am. When the website has accurately predicted precipitation, it’s often way underestimated the amount. It’s not hard to understand the discrepancy when Phu Quok, out in the Gulf of Thailand, is our nearest weather station.

The cool, moist, rainy weather has been great, only had to get out the garden hoses a couple times in a month. Of course cool is somewhat relative: anything below 80F – 27C – is considered cool here, whereas that would be a hot day in Seattle or Dublin. But we love it, especially compared to the hot days of spring, which this year never seemed to end. Kampot which generally doesn’t go above 33 to 35C was up to 36 and 37C every day, with hardly any thunderstorms to offer short time respite from the scorchers.

Still, at this point in my life I sure wouldn’t trade it for cold, shivery, icy weather. Didn’t mind it all in the past, but relaxed and easy is my geezerhood mantra and since I’m not put off by really hot weather, I’ve got no complaints.

The rainy weather does however put a crimp in our nightlife with some people not even bothering to open their bars and you sometimes have to wander around just to find one that has any customers. But June, not noted for being inclement, was also tough that way. The mini-high season – July, August – when a lot of people have their vacations back in cold country brings some energy, but then we have September and October when it really does rain nearly every day and plumbs the depths of dark, wet and uninviting and it can get pretty lonely out there looking for some action. (Right after I wrote the above rainy weather thoughts, it turned sunny and dry, but since September is nigh, it’ll all ring true soon enough.)

The expat community is expanding rapidly which should make a difference in our nightlife in the off season. There’s lots of changes and what some would call upgrading. Blissful Guest House, the first run by expats in Kampot, breathed its last recently after 10 years. It had gone seedy and downhill and struggled to survive the last couple years. It’s being reincarnated as a Monkey Republic, a chain that has several places around the region. We already have a Mad Monkey, What’s next, Monkey Business? Monkey Fun House? On the other hand, a friend, who’s familiar with their operation says Monkey Republic has done some cool stuff architecturally, so maybe it’ll be a plus after all.

The other big transition has been from Bodhi Villa to Banyan Tree. As Bodhi, which is on the opposite side of the river and about a kilometer from town, it attracted a crowd every Friday night for several years for live music followed by an all night disco. Sometimes you’d be there at 9 or 10 and there’d be a few people milling about, but by 11 or so droves of people would seemingly come out of the woodwork: where’d they all come from? I once left at about 10 thinking nothing was happening only to discover later that the dance floor was jammed at midnight. All that took place in a space that was atrociously laid out for the purpose. It had a tiny bar; a rickety dance floor built on stilts over the water that would tremble a bit too much when only one dancer got a little too excited, let alone when lots of people were bouncing up and down; a cramped stage that was actually below the level of the dance floor, and well, you get the picture.

As Banyan Tree there’s been a complete transformation. There’s now a proper stage that sits above a large dance floor capable of accommodating 80 to 100 people and a new bar about 12 meters long in a curved shape that’s made of beautiful 10 centimeter thick wood planks. If you’re going to cut down an old tree, it might as well go into something beautiful and lasting. A large area around the bar is covered but the dance floor is in the open. There aren’t that many people around when it’s raining hard, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

The kick-off party was memorable. There were 150 to 200 people there at any one time and just to show you where Kampot is going, I barely knew 10% or 20% of them. The crowds came in spite of them not getting their roadside sign together. As many times as I’ve been there – I’m embarrassed to say – I drove right by the first time. The sign was evidently not important. Once things get rolling and high season kicks in I expect they’ll be booking bands from around the country and beyond.

Meanwhile, Hugh who ran Bodhi for 10 years is working on remodeling and reincarnating Kampot’s old fish market originally built in the 1920s. It sits on stilts over the river across from the old, now rebuilt, market. From its classy art deco design with an arched roof it was turned into a rectangular, two story, blank façade, ugly by default building. In it’s new life it’ll house a large restaurant during the day and live music venue at night. There’ll be room for at least a hundred people to dance on a brand new dance floor. I expect there’ll be music most nights and similar to Banyan Tree, acts from around the country will be appearing.

We now have regular music events four nights a week. It starts out with live sets at the Magic Sponge on Wednesday nights. Oddly enough the building, whose design can only be described as whimsical, predated the name. In fact, even more oddly, it previously was an Aceleda bank. Madi bar on the river takes over on Thursday nights with the Kampot Playboys and other acts. After the live music it morphs into an all night disco. Next comes the new Banyan Tree, which also goes disco to the morning and finally Naga House, which is not far from Banyan Tree, which mostly serves up all night disco. I know, not much compared to the ‘Big Cities’ but certainly enough to keep us busy.

Lots of venues are changing hands, much is in flux. Unfortunately we lost Light Box, a unique space that brought great artistically oriented events to Kampot in its one year of existence. The culprit was a sub lessee, despised by all, who never passed up an opportunity to lie, cheat and steal. A new place has appeared called Open Space, which may be able to take up some of the slack, but it’s a lot smaller and won’t be the same.

The Garden’s been going through those changes, hopefully to emerge even better than before. It’s a very large outdoor space in the heart of old town easily accommodating more than a hundred people. It’ll be great for music events, though situated amongst residential buildings they’ll have to keep the volume down after a reasonable hour.

O’Neil’s Irish bar, an almost always busy watering hole, goes through an unlikely transition around 11pm. It starts out in the early evening with the gray brigade… mostly old farts hangin’ out shootin’ the shit. When they leave it quiets down somewhat till later when it seems every Spanish speaker within 100 kilometers shows up. Sometimes it’s all Spanish speakers… they probably come to Kampot at least partly just to hang out at Neil’s with their fellows. This is a direct result of having two South American late night bartenders in a row. The first from Argentina, lately from Uruguay. O’Neil’s Spanrish bar.

New international restaurants have been springing up like weeds. A friend went to Tortulia, a new Portuguese restaurant, and called it ridiculously good, though other reports have been so so. Then there’s Turkish, Spanish, French of course, Italian, German, New Orleans Cajun, Indian, Chinese, Thai, basic Brit or American pub food and of course lots of good Khmer eats.

Then there’s Ecran movie house and hand pulled Chinese noodle and dumpling shop (an unlikely combination, but not everything is supposed to make sense). Ecran has a full size 4 meter by 3 meter screen that plays quite a few indie and artsy films with a few blockbusters mixed in. They also have 3 private rooms to catch the movie of your choice. As one who never watches movies on less than a big screen at a real theater (the only exception being stuck on an airplane for 12 hours at a time when I’m truly desperate for distraction) it’s been a real treat.

Lots of new infrastructure improvements are happening. The pond, our one real park, is getting a new lease on life. The new design is a bit too formal for my taste, but it will make it a more pleasant place to be and will certainly see a lot more people using it. The town has been paving roads in concrete. The early ones were quite sloppily done and quite bumpy, but the new River road north of the new bridge is being done to professional quality (Okay, we’ll see about that one) and for Cambodia very smooth. It’s using rebar and is about 20 cm thick, enough I expect to handle the big trucks that’ll be running it. Concrete is much better as a pavement than asphalt or bitumen since it lasts much longer. The best asphalt surface barely lasts a year of punishing by those giant overloaded rock trucks.

And further, the last thing you need in a hot climate is black roads that absorb heat. Big cities are heat islands. The large amount of black tar streets and a landscape consisting almost entirely of buildings – Phnom Penh has hardly any green or watery space left – absorbs heat and keeps the city much hotter than the surrounding countryside, especially at night.

Once again, I end this Kampot update with concern for the future. So far so good; the new people coming in are only adding to the town’s livability, but there’s always that question of when it’ll turn into too much and the experience starts going downhill. Nothing to do but wait that one out.

On another topic: So much for the Culture of Dialog.
Just a couple months ago I wrote that Cambo doesn’t have political prisoners. Well the PM didn’t take long at all to prove me wrong on that one. Just recently, eleven opposition activists were given 20 or 7 year terms for ‘insurrection’. Those convictions were rammed through the court system in just a day or two without even the plaintiffs having their lawyers present. And that a year after the incident in question.

The charges stemmed from the opposition’s demonstrations against the government in 2014. At a certain point the government barricaded ‘Freedom Park’ near Wat Phnom which was supposed to be the one place in the city where demos were always allowed. While the demonstrators were trying to gain entrance to the park, the city sent what they call district security guards, who are known for their brutality, to keep the demos away. While the guards do police work, they aren’t officially police or even have police training, all of which gives the city some deniability as to their responsibility for their brutish ways. At some point, having had enough, the protesters fought back and injured quite a few guards, who were outnumbered.

While I totally support the protesters, who should never be treated so harshly just for exercising their democratic rights, I can see the government’s wish to use the courts to charge them. We all know, in America as well as here in Cambo, that only the police have a ‘right’ to use brutality. There’re lots of statutes they could’ve been charged under, assault for instance, that would’ve been subjected to relatively minor sentences, but insurrection is a bit far-fetched. The only possible silver lining is that, if the past is any guide, those very long sentences will at some point be reduced.

The former governor of Bavet city who shot into a crowd of striking garment factory workers injuring three of them, finally turned himself in and received a 1 1/2 year sentence. He was on the run for 3 years, in which the authorities seemingly didn’t even make a half-hearted attempt to apprehend him. Meanwhile several people protesting a land grab were given the same sentence for blocking a public road. When questioned the presiding judge said the two crimes were indeed equal. Cambodian justice.

Finally, the PM recently announced that the date of the next general election was going to be in July 2018 after all. It had supposedly been moved forward from July to February ’18 as part of his compromise with the opposition that ended their protests. When questioned by the press and opposition he said they hadn’t gotten it in writing so they must be stupid.

Just before deadline for this article, the PM has called Rainsy a leader of the thieves because his intent is allegedly to destabilize the country. This was in reference to the opposition’s demonstrations trying to demarcate the border with Vietnam. Years ago he called Hun Sen a traitor on that matter, now he’s just trying to push the government to settle the border issue and has caused the PM a little discomfort on that matter.

Protesters of all stripes are lately being very harshly dealt with, alienating large numbers of potential voters as a consequence. He seems to long for the Chinese model, but this is Cambodia and imperfect as its democracy is, the people still have a say… we hope.
Cambostan

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