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: 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.



Public Transportation Finally Comes to Cambodia


Phnom Penh is probably the only city of its size in the world that doesn’t have a public bus system, but finally a start has been made. The city has managed to live without a public system, but that has resulted in hardship for some and excessive traffic congestion for all.
There has been a single line operating on Monivong Blvd. since March of this year which in the beginning of September was extended to the outskirts of town in both directions. Two additional lines were inaugurated in the middle of September. One goes from the Night Market on the riverside to Takmau town about 9 km south of the city. The other goes from the Night Market to Cham Chao in the east, presumably passing right by the airport, so if you’ve got the time and you’re not too burdened with luggage you’ll be able to go airport to town for 1500 riel – 37 cents – a bargain.
There still are lots of scoffers, people who will never take one and think it’s a waste of energy. In response to a facebook post about the expansion, one fellow insisted that the current system of relying on motodops (motorbike taxis in the local lingo) and tuk-tuks, (3-wheel taxis) works just fine. They’re cheap, fast and convenient, he said, so why bother with buses. I and another fellow pointed out that they’re cheap for a ‘rich’ expat but for many locals going any distance it’s prohibitively expensive.
For instance, I knew a young Khmer college grad quite a few years ago who spent a short time working in the office of a garment factory about 5 kilometers south of the city center. With the cost of a motodop 6000 riel ($1.50) each way she was spending 60% of her income on transportation. What she had left of her salary after transportation costs was so minimal that she quit after a short time.
The high price of going anywhere outside the neighborhood does two things. It limits people’s mobility and therefore their economic opportunities; one of the great advantages of living in a city. It also encourages those of slightly higher means to get their own transportation since the out-of-pocket cost of fuel is minimal. Many times when people are displaced by development they’re given small plots of land just outside the city, but with no jobs out there and transportation costs so high, they soon wind up back in the city center where they can earn their minimum $2 to $4 a day. So the biggest losers of the city not having public transportation are the city’s poorest.
In some ways it works the same in an American city. With the exception of the biggest cites, most people who ride the bus outside of commuter hours either don’t drive, can’t drive – think of the young, old and infirm – or can’t afford to own a car. Without public transit they’re screwed. Thus one of the two primary reasons why public transit in the US is heavily subsidized. Farebox revenue typically covers only a third of operating costs. The other factor is traffic; a full bus takes up far less street space than the equivalent number of cars needed to carry the same load, especially since most cars carry only a single person. It works the same way here in Cambodia. Even though motorbikes take up only a small fraction of the space of cars, when you add it up a full bus uses much less street space than the equivalent motorbikes to move the same number of people.
Motorbike taxis have two great advantages: time and convenience. Nothing could be quicker or easier, especially in Phnom Penh where there’s a motodop waiting on every corner and in front of every business ready to whisk you on your way. They are very maneuverable and are able to get you there as quickly as possible.
Using public transportation, on the other hand, is very time consuming. First you have to walk to the bus stop, then wait for it. Once aboard, it goes relatively slowly and has to stop often to pick up and drop off passengers and when you get off there’s still the walk to your final destination. A less than 10 minute door-to-door ride on a motorbike could easily take half an hour or longer using the bus. For that reason most Phnom Penhers would not immediately sell or park their bikes if presented with a bus alternative. Still, many in fact would save the money and use the bus. With the extra time, students for instance, could use it to study or just diddle with their smart phones. Most importantly, every person who opted for public transit would help ease traffic problems, reduce the need for parking, cut pollution and save energy.
Bus transportation would not put most motodops be out of a job, in fact, many people going long distances on the bus would hop on a motorbike taxi for the short hop to get them from the bus stop to their final destination. It’s mostly for the long haul that people would use public transportation.
On the other hand, buses have some great advantages. Probably most important is that they are 1000 times safer than riding a motorbike in Phnom Penh’s traffic. And nothing beats the comfort of proper seat in an air-con bus when Cambodia is brutally hot or in the middle of a tropical downpour. There’s also the pollution you breath in to consider when you’re on the street in an open vehicle.
The capital had a short-lived bus system back in 2001 that was financed by Japan; it even had proper bus shelters. I’ve heard conflicting reports about the experiment. One was that people weren’t riding it; the other that the city didn’t want to continue the subsidy after the six-month trial period. I believe time would’ve solved the first problem. Traffic wasn’t so bad then and people needed time to get used to the bus. The other problem is the need for public subsidies; big bus systems almost always need public money. If you try to pay for it through the farebox, it’ll cost too much and people won’t use it in sufficient numbers, which defeats the purpose of getting as many people as possible to use it for its traffic reduction aspect.
The government has been trying for years to get a private company to run the buses, hoping to relieve itself of the burden – the Cambodian government is hardly noted for its efficiency – and avoid the subsidy regime, but has not had any takers. Even the company that ran the single line since March quit after the city wouldn’t grant a tax break on its other operations. After six months of operation, the government just couldn’t close it down and has pledged to keep it going regardless of the cost.
For a system to be successful it needs to offer wide coverage: there aren’t that many people moving around the city who have a starting point and destination on the same street. The fact that the single line was showing progress bodes well for the system as a whole. For best results there also needs to be free transfers between lines since a significant percentage will need more than one line. Even after the complete system is up and running traffic will seem just as bad. The city is growing so fast the bus system will only keep congestion from getting much worse, a worthy enough goal.
Ultimately, large cities need rail transport in the form of sky trains or subways or at minimum dedicated bus lanes to get beyond street congestion. It’s only then that public transit can begin to compete timewise and provide a reasonable alternative to the comfort of a private vehicle. Either way, the cost of those systems is far beyond the government’s finances so they’ll not be happening anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Siem Reap is about to have a solar bus system, one of only 3 or 4 in the world. Star8, an Australian company, will be building and running the system. They’ll be exclusively solar-electric, no back up combustion engines needed. The buses will have solar panels on their roofs to help provide power and there’ll be solar charging stations on the routes where extra batteries will be charged. The batteries will be able to take the bus 90 kms on a charge and when they get low, they’ll be able to make a quick change en route. There are other ways to charge batteries without removing them: microwave chargers can be placed in the road so they can be juiced up at stops, but that’s probably a pretty spendy option at this point.
There are great advantages to electric transportation, in this case one of the most important will be the reduction of pollution at the temples. With more than a million tourists visiting every year, all on combustion engine vehicles, the pollution has become a threat to the temples.
Electric vehicles are far superior to combustion driven ones even if the power comes from central generating stations. Electric motors are more than 90% efficient compared to combustion engines in which half the fuel expended is lost in waste heat. They are nearly silent, which in fact has resulted in problems for blind people as they can’t hear them coming. There’s talk of adding sounds to electric vehicles to protect those people: that applies mostly to small vehicles. They’re pollution free in the cities, where it counts most. Besides, it’s easier to control and limit pollution from a single large point source than spread amongst large numbers of small engines.
They are super efficient, especially in urban use as they don’t idle; that is, they expend no energy while stopped, except for accessories. When I lived in Bangkok in 1993, traffic would come to a complete stop for an hour in many places. All those vehicles were chugging away for an hour, wasting energy and creating pollution while going nowhere.
They also have what’s called regenerative breaking. When the brakes are applied, the motor helps to slow the vehicle down: it turns into a generator. It sounds complicated but it’s really very simple. Motor and generator, when wired properly, are fundamentally the same machine. If you put electricity in one direction it does work. If you put work into the other direction it generates electricity. In this case the work is helping to stop the vehicle. In the case of a bus that makes many stops, regenerative breaking reduces energy use by about 30%. Electric vehicles actually get better mileage in town than on the road for that reason. Also they accelerate faster than diesel and the motors last longer and require less maintenance.
Up until now, with solar cells becoming so cheap, electric buses required overhead lines or lots of very heavy batteries. The Australian company that’s building and will be running the solar bus system currently has a solar cell factory in Phnom Penh and is now building one in Siem Reap. It’s truly gratifying to think that our lowly Cambodia will soon pioneer with one of only 3 or 4 totally solar bus systems in the world.
But it’s also depressing and dispiriting to think that conversion to solar could’ve happened long ago. Back in the 70s during the OPEC oil embargo and resultant turmoil the Pentagon did a study that showed if $5 billion were spent buying solar cells for their remote locations, the ramping up of production would’ve made the cost of solar competitive with fossil fuels, and that’s when gas was 50 cents a gallon. In response to the crisis, Jimmy Carter called the need to switch to renewables the Moral Equivalent of War. He proposed a drastic change in priorities and did his little part by putting solar hot water on the White House roof. The people didn’t want to hear about it so they elected Ronald Reagan.
When Reagan came into office in 1981 he removed the solar water apparatus from the White House, ended Carter’s solar tax credits and trashed everything environmental. He insisted there was plenty of fossil fuel and environmentalists were just a bunch of do-gooder hippies who wanted everybody to live in caves (I’m paraphrasing, of course). His first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, said the environment didn’t matter because the End Times were coming soon and the world would be destroyed anyway so why bother trying to save it.
Now we’re at the brink of irreversible change and the world continues to increase CO2 production; last year saw the largest increase ever. That’s in spite of great successes like Germany where one day last spring they got 100% of their power from renewables. There is also one district there with 100,000 people that now not only gets all of its power without burning fossil fuels but often sends another 100% back into the grid. Texas and Iowa now get 25% of their power from wind, something that could’ve happened decades ago. Yet, in the height of folly and insanity, the US government still subsidizes the oil giants, some of the richest corporations in the world, to the tune of $8 billion a year. America consistently provides more in subsidies to old technologies than renewables.
China is making great strides developing renewables, and is the world’s biggest exporter of solar panels, but still builds a new coal fired plant every week, that in spite of many of its cities having the worst air pollution in the world. How can we go forward if we’re still going backward?
Even Cambodia is joining the death march to destruction with a new coal fired power plant being built in Sihanoukville… just what a tourist town needs, air pollution.
Not a penny should be going into new fossil fuel facilities, not when we know renewables can work just fine. If we stopped right now, we might have a stab at mitigating the worst impacts of climate change, we might be able to just barely make it without totally crashing the planet. But we won’t because there’s lots of money to be made in not giving a shit. At least it’ll be an exciting ride, a race against reality, a true extravaganza of extraordinary events. Which I expect to witness in my lifetime, which at 73, isn’t all that long.
Of course, I’ve been wrong before.