Cambodia Politics and Development

Wishful Thinking – Cambo Style

A government minister recently announced that a light rail train service would be running to the airport by next April. This impressed me as a lot like raising the flag for an idea and seeing if anybody salutes, except it’ll take a lot more than raising hands to construct a viable, functional rail line. The whole idea is ridden with breathlessly phantasmagorical absurdity. It’s not that a light rail line wouldn’t be a great idea and considering today’s traffic, a necessity for a smoothly functioning city, but to use the current single track now used by freight and long haul passengers, and build a new 1.5 kilometer track to connect to the airport and to do it all in 8 months… wow I’d sure be impressed. And if it actually did come together it’d be the cheesiest light rail line in existence.

In the first place, the track is extremely slow, it takes practically an hour for the long haul passenger train go the last 10 kilometers; part of the reason is that in one section people have set up market stalls on both sides of the track within inches of the trains going by. With 2 or 3 intermediate stops, it would take more than an hour to go the 9 kilometers from the PP train station to the airport, and that’s if there were no conflicts with the freight and long haul passenger trains. A single track means lots of waiting on sidings for trains to pass in the opposite direction. I’ll concede that it’d be better than nothing, though not by a whole lot. At least the government would be thinking about rail alternatives to deal with traffic.

A week after that announcement, the whole idea got upgraded to asking Japan for $800 million to build a skytrain. The airport is so close that a train running at 80 kph wouldn’t take ten minutes even with intermediate stops. Japan has given Cambodia $4.2 billion since 1992, so $800m in one shot doesn’t seem very likely.

A far more realistic solution that’d probably cost five or ten times less would be to double track the existing line and upgrade it for higher speeds. As I remember there’s plenty of room for another track along most of that stretch. It wouldn’t be able to go as fast but even if it only went at 50 kph it’d still get you to the airport in 15 minutes. It’s never preferable to mix local light rail trains with long haul trains, but it’d work fine in the interim and cut nearly an hour off of long haul timetables – Kampot to Phnom Penh in four hours rather than five. It could also be implemented in much less time than the skytrain. I’d guess 1½ to 2 years against 3 to 4 years to build a skytrain. Also asking Japan for $150 million or so is a lot more realistic.

As of August 15 the story has changed again. Japan has agreed to loan Cambodia the money, with long payback terms and low interest rates. Their experts will begin studying two or three possible routes. The same article in the Daily said that the Transportation Ministry was going to simultaneously develop the ground based train. Really? Spend millions on a ground based system that’ll be obsolete a year or two after it’s finished? I guess we’ll see… and maybe I’ll have to revise this story again before my deadline.

In other transportation news China has donated 100 used buses to enable new lines to be added to the three currently in operation. When the announcement was made the word was that the new lines would be operational within 6 weeks. Then a short time later, the ministry decided they probably should do a little planning first. Over the years several proposals for new lines have been made – I’ve see a couple different maps – but that’s not the same as actually making it happen. Once they settle on a route, they have to get out and decide where the stops need to go, then they need to design maps and finally build the stops: that doesn’t happen in six weeks. Once lines are set up, it’s expensive and difficult to change them, so it needs to be done right the first time. At least it’s finally getting done.

Back in 2000 Japan financed a pilot bus system, but at the end of the six month trial, the city wasn’t interested in providing the funds necessary to keep it going. Big bus systems always need subsidies. As I understand it, the current 3 line system requires a $1m per year subsidy. Sounds like a lot, but that’s less than the cost of 5 luxury SUVs of the kind that hundreds or thousands of public officials drive around.

The government is also expecting Japan to donate 180 buses. The timetable now for implementation is early next year with a total of ten lines running. Public transportation is essential for a big city. No matter how small motorbikes are, they still take up more street space than the equivalent number of people riding a full bus. They are safe; how many people are hurt riding city buses? They’re more comfortable with air-con and shelter from inclement weather. It’s also healthier not being in the traffic on a moto breathing exhaust. Public buses are a boon to low income people, as Phnom Penh’s buses allow riders to go long distances for 1500 riel – about 37 cents – giving them many more job and life possibilities. We expats look at the dollar or two it costs us to pay for moto transportation all the way across town as a pittance, but it’s a heavy burden to the many locals who earn $100 or $200 dollars a month. Yes they’re much slower, so motodops and tuk-tuk drivers will still have their customers, but a lot of people will take the bus when the system is more complete.

I’ve often wondered why a minibus system was never set up in Phnom Penh similar to the Philippines where jeepneys operate in big cities like Manila as well as the countryside. Manila has big buses and a train system as well as the minibuses. Minibuses cover the countryside here so it’s curious that they were never used in the capital. No matter, a real transit system is coming.

Speaking of wishful thinking a couple little tidbits in the August 3 edition of the Daily caught my eye. In one, two companies, one each from Malaysia and Cambodia announced they were going to build a $5 billion, 522 kilometer expressway from Phnom Penh to the Lao border and start construction by the end of the year. Bwahahahaha. Not only is $5b a shitload of money, but that area is very sparsely populated and one of the least likely places in the country to justify the expense in building an expressway. The transport ministry didn’t know anything about it and when the Daily checked it out, one of the two companies, the Malaysian one, had a one page website that made no mention of the project and they were unable to make contact with the other. Another pure fantasy.

The other tidbit was an announcement that a task force of local and national officials was being set up with the charge of solving the capital’s flooding problems. A Water Resources Ministry spokesperson was quoted saying the committee would take the results of the task force and stop the flooding…Bwahahahaha. Just about every person in Cambodia who doesn’t have a personal financial stake in filling in wetlands and lakes knows exactly what the problem is and what to do to begin fixing the problem: Stop It! Just Stop It!

Well okay, I’ll grant you that some people who are filling the city’s natural drainage areas with concrete actually believe what they’re doing is good for the city… after all a while back one of the city’s elite businessmen actually proposed developing the Olympic Stadium grounds with malls, condos and such saying the land was too valuable to be used only for recreation. And that’s the only substantial public space outside the riverside area in the whole city of 2 million people. The rich, as everywhere, are oblivious to the needs of commoners. They have their urban villas and country estates so they feel no loss when public parks or lakes are turned into concrete.

In other transportation news, the government has announced a plan to clear the city’s sidewalks for pedestrians, starting with major thoroughfares, which is long overdue as far as I’m concerned. It’s uncouth, uncivilized and dangerous to force people to walk in the street amongst cars and motos whizzing by.

It wasn’t that long ago (okay 7 or 8 years maybe) that a public official decided that the city was going to eliminate all the sidewalks since Cambodians didn’t like to walk anyway. On the contrary, plenty of Penhers like to walk, look at the thousands who saunter around the riverside every afternoon, it’s just that it’s now so uncomfortable and unpleasant that few have the incentive. A Khmer friend who visited Europe related how she greatly enjoyed walking there and was excited to return and walk in the capital but realized very quickly walking in PP was pure hassle and not worth it.

In fact, before the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge, encumbrance of the sidewalks was strictly forbidden. Since blocking sidewalks was a long tradition in Vietnam I assume it was during the time of their occupation that usurping public sidewalks for private use became common.

When I’m in the capital I do almost everything by walking because I have a fierce dislike of motorbikes and can’t imagine riding a bicycle there. Of course it’s terribly frustrating and frightening to be a lowly pedestrian dodging traffic, and very uncomfortable in many places because the sidewalks are so inconsistent. They go up and down – sometimes one will be 30 centimeters higher than the adjacent one – and sometimes are at a steep slant. If the city wants them to be used they need to establish standards so they all are built to the same level, with minimal slant. They should be angled only enough for rain to shed off. But at least it’s a start.

It might not be easy; more than once I’ve read that Bogota, capital of Columbia was having a terrible time getting the sidewalks cleared. When you consider it’s 3 times Phnom Penh’s size and Columbia has more than 3 times Cambodia’s population, it could be a challenge.

In Kampot I ride bicycle in the daytime and car at night. I would ride the bike at night at times if not for the dogs of midnight who terrorize anybody who comes near; they even bark at my car sometimes. The PM remarked recently in reference to the city’s heavy traffic that he didn’t want to restrict people from having cars, they’re starting to be middle class and want their autos. I agree, except he should also be looking at the developed world where the greater emphasis is on bicycles and walking. Everybody having cars is an interim phase. Rich countries encourage and facilitate bike use because they’re clean, quiet, healthy and take up little street space. Once the sidewalks are cleared, there’ll be many places where safe bikepaths would be possible.

Finally a few notes on Kampot. First, in the wishful thinking department a private firm has announced a $23 billion development on the coast. That’s more than the value of all the property in the city, maybe several times the value. Another figment of someone’s outsized imagination and a disaster if it ever really happened.

Also I have to mention the new international passenger port being constructed 9 kilometers south of town with $18m in Asia Development Bank funds. It’ll be designed to take people to Phu Quok and destinations in Cambodia like Sihanoukville, Koh Rong, Koh Kong. It’d be kinda nice to be able to go those places on the water, but they are confidently expecting an average 1000 people a day to use it in the first year, which seems quite outlandish to me. In the first place water travel tends to be expensive; the relatively short boat trip between S-ville and Koh Rong costs ten dollars. The first time I traveled between Koh Kong and S-ville in 2002 I took a boat as there was no road alternative: it was expensive and took a long time.

I’ve been wrong before, so maybe my pessimism is way off and thousands of people a day will be using it. I hope that doesn’t come to pass since who really needs all those extra people coming through? We already have lots of ‘refugees’ from S-ville settling here as well as a steady stream of people from all over the world seeking haven from the madding crowds. There’s an old saying that sums up the conundrum… If you find the perfect place, don’t stay because it won’t be perfect anymore. It happens all the time, as soon as a place is discovered it’s on the way to destruction. On the other hand, Kampot’s still a cool and pleasant place to be and the influx hasn’t yet changed it’s essential nature, but is there a tipping point?

I’m stuck almost whatever happens. I’ve been in the same rental house for 10 years and I’ve turned my little plot of land into an Eden, buying plants every month to add to my garden.

On another topic, a couple months ago the riverside strip suddenly was free of parked cars, well almost free, there were still a few scofflaws. I checked for signs, but saw none. The police somehow got the word out and almost everybody obeyed, even assuming that some of the cars didn’t have local owners. But just to be sure no good deed goes unpunished, the authorities have compensated for the improvement of the experience by erecting large –1.5 by 2 meter –lighted advertising signs every 30 or so meters all along the 3 kilometer riverside park. Tacky, ugly, trashy, tasteless and vulgar. Now in the old town section of the riverside park there are the garishly lit restaurant boats on one side and intrusive telecom ads on the other. Since the park, actually a promenade, is not very wide, it’s like you’re being bombarded with ugly.

In a final note: kampotradio.com is up and running with local presenters several hours a day, including yours truly between 7 and 8 pm Monday through Thursday playing those good old tunes.

 

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Kampot, Cambodia

Safe and Sound

A while back a guy at the bar came out squarely against the concept of ‘better safe than sorry’. He wanted experience, excitement, adventure, but I don’t think that’s what that adage really means. In no way does it preclude an active, interesting life. It’s more like when you go rock climbing or mountaineering, for instance, you know what you’re getting into and come prepared for survival, for difficulties. You can’t cover every exigency but you study your turf and understand the possible challenges.

I’m the type of person who’s always almost painfully aware of rules of safety and the dangers around us. That doesn’t mean I always follow the better safe concept. For instance, I rarely wear seat belts, though the importance of doing that was impressed upon me long ago.

I met a woman while riding Amtrak across the US who had recently spent 2 months in the hospital from a serious road accident. She was coming home after a short highway trip. She stopped a few miles from her turnoff to pick something up. When she got back in the car she figured it was such a short distance it wasn’t important to wear her seat belt, though previously she had always been religious about hooking it up and…  Kaboom.

A good part of the reason why we live in Cambodia is the lackadaisical way rules are enforced here. Back in the western world everything is regimented and ordered: There are big consequences for getting caught trying to get around the rules, like in Oregon a hefty fine of about $100 for not wearing a seat belt or having a child in a car seat. Still, even if I don’t follow them, I can see the benefits. Yes, it’s illegal to smoke in the bars, but as long as nobody complains, why make a big deal of it? If anybody’s getting hurt, which in fact they are from second hand smoke, it’s their choice to be there. The ban is good even if it isn’t enforced because it constantly reminds smokers of the danger of what they’re doing to themselves and others.

We may avoid doing the safe thing if it’s a lot of hassle or costs very much, especially if we think the odds are remote. But regardless of low probability we could be making decisions that can severely impact others. Maybe we are lazy, disinterested or sometimes unaware. If our actions or inactions lead to someone getting seriously injured… well that’s a karma nobody wants to take on.

Some years ago I was in a popular expat bar in Phnom Penh, hanging out, talking when I leaned back, I should say rocked back, in one of those cheap wicker bar stools (you know, one of the really uncomfortable kind) when I lost control; it tipped over backward and speedily sent me hurtling towards the concrete floor. In a flash of time – it probably took less than a second to go all the way down – I decided to turn my head rather than have the back of it hit the floor first and instead bounced off of the concrete with my nose. It was broken and it hurt for more than a week.

Looking at the stool closely, it was clearly unstable with the legs all tilted backwards, enough so it didn’t take very much to go over. Not long later I was back at the bar and a friend tried to sit on it and, without any prompting from me, said, This stool is really unstable. It was an accident waiting to happen. Right after the event I wanted to take the stool outside and destroy it so it couldn’t hurt anyone else. Instead the owner just moved it aside temporarily and later it found its way back to the bar. It’s not hard to imagine someone else getting a serious concussion or cracked skull or even dying from a fall like that. Did he really want to be responsible for a serious injury over a cheap lousy $25 bar stool? Yes, I was drinking and a bit unstable myself, but drinking is what you do in a bar, so bar owners need to be aware of the risks involved and be doubly sure not to keep dangerous things around.

In this case there was a silver lining. My nose had been pointing left from a previous break. That latest break had it pointing in the right direction. It isn’t straight, mind you, but a least it’s pointing straight ahead.

More recently, a few years back there was an outdoor bar-restaurant here in Kampot, that was at times, very successful. The problem there was that the pathway to the toilet was very rough, with lots of places to stub a toe. In my case that meant diving head first into a concrete wall. Ouch, that sure hurt. It also drew lots of blood and evil looking scrapes. Fortunately I have a very hard head, so the damage was strictly on the surface, except for a raging headache. Yeah sure, I had drunk my quota and wasn’t entirely focused on where my feet were going, but again, drinking is what you do in a bar and many people get sloppy while drinking. And further, no matter how loopy I might’ve been, I would’ve never crashed if the pathway was a smooth surface. Yes, I’d made it to that pisser many times previously, but still, it was an accident waiting to happen.

In the first case the danger was very clear and easy to remediate, just get rid of the damn stool, the latter case was not so clear cut since it would’ve taken time and effort to make that path right so it’s understandable why the owner might not see the safety improvement as critical and even if he did, try to avoid correcting it since that was going to be a hassle. All I can say is, Be aware, you don’t want your negligence or indifference to be the cause of someone’s injury.

Dangerous plants. Another of my pet kvetches is nasty plants, or say plants that are very unfriendly if you get too close. The most iffy one you see around a lot is a member of the euphorbia family with the popular name of crown of thorns. It’s not a plant you want to have situated where people are moving close by, because if you get too close, or drunkenly fall into one, you’ll feel like a pincushion. It’s stems are covered with very sharp 2 cm long thorns. They are very popular in Kampot, you see them everywhere because they have two saving attributes: They are always in flower and they are practically indestructible; leave it without water for months and it’ll be stressed, but still alive and holding on.

One of the nicest plants around is bougainvillea. Mature plants can cover a whole building with beautiful flowers. The city of Kampot likes it so much they encourage property owners to plant lots of them. But, like the crown of thorns, it’s not one you want to get too close to since it also is covered with sharp thorns, though they’re not as treacherous as the euphorbia’s. I’ve seen them in places where you had to duck to avoid them… they need to be kept trimmed.

Defensive driving. It’s one of those musts for avoiding damage to oneself and others. I was driving my car in Phnom Penh some years ago when a car pulled in front of me, actually I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I was somehow offended and felt aggressive so I drove very close behind – I’ll show him –  and made a quick stop when he did… which caused a moto driver to almost hit me from behind. Now did I really want someone else to pay for my bad attitude? It wasn’t the first time I let my ego cause danger to others.

Meanwhile the little kiddies, some as young as six, are out in full force roaming the streets of Kampot in their little motorbikes weaving around traffic like pros, cutting you off and forcing quick stops and just generally treating driving around town as if it was a carnival ride.

I was going through a narrow spot with room enough for only my Tico and there’s a ten-year-old driving right at me forcing me to brake, he then does a deft fancy maneuver around me. In the first place, cars have the right-of-way over motorbikes in Cambodia, he should’ve let me pass. He can’t have had much experience at his age, yet he acts like he owns the road. Well, one time he’ll be a little too challenging, be a little too sure of himself, get a little too close and the other person might not have the time to respond before that young child becomes toast.

Kids should be on bicycles, it’s much healthier. Everybody should for short trips, it’s not only healthier but it’s quieter and doesn’t use fossil fuels or create pollution. Sure you can also get hurt on a bicycle, but they don’t go very fast and generally are less dangerous.

Rule by the rich. Last fall in the middle of a full remodel Madi bar was shut down by the owner of the building who bought out the lease. Madi had been an institution for at least 5 years with live music every Thursday drawing crowds. It was a fun, relaxed place and since it was owned by a Cambodian, it drew a mixed crew. It was a perfect place for music: few people lived on the block so there were few people to complain about it being loud. Even now, a year later most of the block is curiously vacant. But for the rich guy it was too funky. No matter how cool they may look, or friendly they may act, they like their upscaleness. They want a clean, trendy middle class look.  He couldn’t even deal with beautiful mature Areca palms, codeiums and other very large venerable plants that nearly formed a green canopy over the entrance: it was too messy, all had to go.

I sorely miss the bar. It was great to have a place to dance in old town, now the only dance venues are outside of town on the river. The worst was seeing that greenery go, it was sad, dispiriting and as far as I’m concerned, totally unnecessary.

Part of Kampot’s cache, its allure is in its funkiness. To me lack of perfection is perfection. While I can appreciate hip, beautiful, trendy design, I much prefer the realism of laidbackness, you know, the essence of Cambodia, the reason why we live here. Do we really want the middle class look to take over our town?

So I recently see him in a bar in another building he owns, enjoying the scene while, rumor has it, he’s plotting the bar’s removal and upgrading for a better clientele. Good vibes are evidently not enough. It’s also an institution and has been around for six years. In that case the owner of the bar won’t have a problem finding a new place. It probably won’t have the benefit of being on the riverside as his present place is, but his customers will certainly follow him wherever he goes. Not same for the former Madi bar’s owner since it’s very difficult to site a live music bar in old town, he’s been trying to no avail. Money rules.

I know I’ve beat the dead horse of lousy bar design repeatedly, but reasons to comment keep on battering me. Kampot has a new roof top bar: nice spot, good vibes, well attended, atrociously designed bar. It has no overhang, standard issue bar stools with the upper cross member too high for comfort – your knees are up around your chin (exaggerating slightly) – and the lower one unreachable unless you’re very tall. And there’s no rail or foot rest to compensate so your legs (my legs) start to go numb after a beer or two of hanging with no place to put them, after that I get antsy and want to move on. I may suffer and put up with it if I’m having a good time, but my back and legs will be complaining big time. If you’re young you can deal with being uncomfortable for a long time, but I no longer have that gift.

Another element of poor design is bars that are too tall which nonetheless have standard size stools. There are two recently built venues with that problem. Being relatively short, I feel like a little kid who can barely see over the bar top… again exaggerating… but still. If you’re building a bar, it’s design shouldn’t come off the top of your head, it should be based on real criteria and logic.

Finally, a word about crappers. I was at a friend’s new bar-restaurant, took a piss and tried to flush the toilet; didn’t work though it was only a month old. Three points to make on this. One; I assume almost all toilets sold in Cambodia are made in China, which doesn’t always mean poor quality, but often does. Still, to crap out after only one month? Most of course will work for quite a while before they start giving you shit. If you install one in your house and flush it maybe ten times a day, it could work fine for years, but if it’s in a bar and gets used 10 times an hour it won’t be long before it gives you hassles and headaches. Two; in Cambodia, with rare exceptions, men are going to make up 60% to 90% of a bar’s customer base. Three; if you also install a urinal, which needs far less maintenance, your flusher will work a lot longer before it starts giving you shit. It’s obviously best to have the urinal in its own space, but even if you don’t have the room and have to place it in the same room as the toilet, you’re still going to be far better off.

 

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Kampot, Cambodia

Speed Bumps Are Dangerous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

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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