Sunday, November 20, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
Friday, November 11, 2011
Thursday, November 10, 2011
The government recently announced it was signing a contract with a French engineering firm to design a bus system for the capital. The city is the only one of its size I’m aware of that doesn’t have a public transit system. This is especially problematical as Phnom Penh is becoming denser with high-rise buildings sprouting everywhere. The current non-system, relying totally on private carriers - motorbikes, tuk-tuks and taxis - is a lot more doable in a low-rise, medium density city than in a city with modern skyscraper-type ambitions.
Public transit will not be a cure-all for the capital’s traffic problems but it would certainly help. Motorbikes are small but they still take up more street space than the equivalent number of people traveling on a bus. Even if each motodop is carrying an average of two people, that’s 30 motorbikes to equal the capacity of a 60 passenger bus.
Buses have other advantages besides traffic relief. They’re immeasurably safer than riding on motorbikes and more comfortable; think about riding a moto in the rain or in the hot sun compared to a relatively comfortable seat on an air-con bus.
Phnom Penh did in fact have a bus system for a short six months back in 2001. It was an experimental system financed by Japan. Until just a few years ago you could still see the leftover bus stop signs and bus shelters along Monivong and Norodom. That system was before my time and I’ve heard conflicting reports of its acceptance by the population, but in general people were getting used to them and ridership was slowly increasing. It was ended because the government didn’t want to continue the necessary subsidies. Big bus systems always seem to require infusions of public money. The government, knowing how inefficient and corrupt it’s capable of being, let the system die rather than get itself involved in such a big and expensive project.
Fare collections in American bus systems usually account for only about 1/3 of operating costs. Municipalities charge the remaining costs to the taxpayer because the alternative would be worse. There’d not only be the additional traffic to deal with absent a bus system but finding place to park all the extra cars would be difficult. Nobody needs to be encouraged to own a vehicle; with few exceptions it’s what everybody wants, so in Western countries where people have the means, governments go to great lengths to try to entice people away from their vehicles on to public transportation. In addition to massive subsidies, they advertise and even plead with their citizens to leave their cars at home and bus it.
You can’t really sustain a dense urban area where everybody has a vehicle, though that’s mitigated somewhat when most vehicles are motorbikes. Still, even in Phnom Penh where they are the primary form of transportation, parking is an important consideration. Where I taught English a few years back they had just built a new six story classroom facility. Two of those floors are devoted exclusively to motorbike parking, and that space is crowded with them. Small as they are, there is no small cost in accommodating them. And witness the masses of parked motorbikes in front of every popular restaurant or shop. Within a few years at present trends with increasing numbers of cars on the road, the city will be swamped.
The only thing that makes the situation somewhat tenable today is the widespread use of sidewalks for vehicle parking; it’d be very hard to accommodate them otherwise, though at the same time, lack of safe, comfortable pedestrian ways discourages walking and thus adds to motorbike use. A few years back a friend who was living in Saigon told me he was forced to take a motorbike to go only 100 or 200 meters because blocked sidewalks made it impossible to walk and traffic is so much denser there. I’ve heard they’ve since cleared the sidewalks for pedestrians. Another friend, a Khmer, who’d spent some time in Europe, really enjoyed walking there. She was all fired up about doing the same when she returned to Phnom Penh, but was quickly discouraged from walking in the capital because it’s so uncomfortable there. At any rate anything that encourages people to use alternate means of travel; that is, other than their own vehicles, makes it better for everyone.
Motodops and tuk-tuk drivers will howl in protest at a competing bus system but there’ll still be a big place for them in the transportation picture since they do have two distinct advantages over buses: they’re convenient and fast. Leave any building in the city and unless the motodops already know you and know you don’t require their services, you are besieged by drivers seeking to give you a ride. Contrast that with having to walk to the nearest bus stop and then wait till the bus comes. And further, in place of snaking very quickly through traffic on a motorbike, buses are lumbering and slow and they spend a lot of time stopping for passengers. Moreover, instead of getting you direct to your door on a moto, you have to walk to your destination when you get off. Going short distances you could probably make two round trips on a moto just in the time you have to wait for the bus, though if they really catch on there might be enough patronage to have buses every few minutes. Buses also have negatives in terms of being noisy and smoky, though that could be mitigated somewhat in the future with hybrid buses.
Where buses would really make a difference is in long trips for the city’s low income people. For you or I spending 6000 riels to go from the center of town to the airport on a moto is no big deal, for the majority of the city’s residents it’s a great burden and severely restricts their mobility, especially in terms of jobs. Contrast that cost with the ten cents or 400 riels cost of going that far in Bangkok on a non-air-con bus or the 40 cents or 1600 riels on an air-con bus. Unless time were of the essence many if not most Cambodians would opt for the bus. For instance, going from Kampot to Phnom Penh, the cost differential between taking a (relatively) comfortable air-con bus and an absurdly crowded and practically demeaning minibus is only about a dollar and yet lots of Khmers have no choice but to save the money and ride rough.
Many locals who can afford long moto trips, but maybe just barely, are strongly encouraged by the economics to get their own wheels since the cost of fuel for the same trip would be relatively very small. This then also adds to traffic and the need for parking.
I’ve always thought the jeepney system used in the Philippines would be ideal for Phnom Penh. It’s basically the same as the minibus or remorque system used in rural Cambodia, but for some reason stops at the city’s outskirts. For those unfamiliar with jeepneys the first ones were elongated military jeeps left over after the second world war. Now they are manufactured in country. Fares are equivalent to 500 or 600 riels. As far as I could tell they are all privately owned and operated. They have bench seats on the sides which about 18 to 20 people can squeeze into. They can also pull out stools for passengers to sit on between the rows and, like in Cambodia, there’s always room for people to hang off the back or sit on top, though sitting on top is mostly found in the countryside, I don’t ever remember seeing topside riders in the cities.
While you do see big buses in Manila, jeepneys are still the major transportation mode. If I remember correctly they have designated places to stop, but they will also pick up anybody who waves them down. On a major thoroughfare there’ll be several lines operating to different destinations and they pretty much keep to designated routes. For instance, if the same concept were applied to Phnom Penh there might be three or four routes operating on a street like Norodom. If you were heading south from Wat Phnom there’d be one route heading east over the Monivong bridge, one going south to Tahkmau, another to Russian Market, etc. If you were going a short distance you could take the first one that came along, otherwise you’d have to wait till the right jeepney came by for the further destination.
I doubt very much if the French engineering firm will consider the jeepney/ minibus option. It’d probably never cross their minds, at least in part because it would never be a viable option in their own country because of the high cost of labor. However, in Cambodia, as in the Philippines, a minibus owner/operator working the city streets could easily earn a basic living - if moto and tuk-tuk drivers can earn their keep, minibus drivers certainly could also.
In addition, minibuses are more flexible as in the above example of jeepneys operating on a single street going to several destinations. A big bus system, especially in the beginning, is likely to have limited routes. For instance, the bus on Norodom will not likely branch out to different destinations, which means many riders will need to take more than one bus. And since transfer systems can get quite complicated, they’ll probably wind up paying multiple fares, all of which will discourage ridership. Considering the inherent disadvantages to the individual in taking the bus and the concurrent greater benefit to the society as a whole, the authorities have to do everything they can think of to get the people to use them.
In contrast to Asian cities, American cities tend to have well defined downtowns which allows for relatively more efficient transit systems since most bus lines converge in a central place, meaning most riders need only one bus to their destinations. When people do need to take more than one bus, having bus lines converge facilitates transfers. In Phnom Penh, downtown type activities are widely spread over the city, still it would help to have a centrally located bus station where a lot of bus lines, if not all or most, come together.
The capital’s other major transportation deficiency is the lack of a modern centrally located overland bus terminal that would be used by all the bus lines. The present haphazard system works but a single terminal would be a lot more convenient for riders. Now when you take an overland bus you have to know which company you want to use and their schedule. The experience of taking a bus from Kuala Lumpur’s central bus station provides a good example. First, it’s easy to find the terminal compared to Phnom Penh where bus stations are scattered all over town. Then you walk in and unless you really prefer one company over the others and know its schedules, you take the next available bus. With all the buses converging in a single station, for most routes you’d never have to wait long till the next bus leaves. Then you have all the different companies’ ticket windows lined up, making for intense competition. As I remember it, when a bus about to leave had empty seats, the ticket sellers would call out how soon their bus was to depart and offer discounts to use it. Finally, with a modern terminal all overland buses, with their attendant noise and pollution, would congregate off the street and also not increase congestion.
The ideal location for an overland bus terminal would be adjacent to the train station, that way transfers between the two would be facilitated. (There are no passenger trains now, but it won’t be long as the tracks between Sihanoukville and the capital are almost finished) For instance, you’ve just arrived on the train from Kampot headed for Kratie; you get off the train and walk over to the bus terminal and catch the next bus to your destination. In the present scattered system, you get off the train and then take a moto or such to your choice of several bus companies and hope your timing is good. Or you get off the train and head to the only bus company you’re familiar with even though you know the schedule and know you’ll have to wait a long time. With all the buses in the same terminal, there might be another company with a bus leaving in a few minutes. To top it off, for obvious reasons, a transit station where local buses meet should also be located close by.
In Portland, Oregon, my home away from home in America, trains, intercity buses and local buses all converge in a small area at the edge of downtown. The long distance bus station was previously located in the heart of downtown, but was moved to the transit center because the land was considered too valuable for a bus terminal and the noise, pollution and congestion the buses caused was a detriment to the ambiance of the area.
I wouldn’t expect Phnom Penh’s leaders to act on a suggestion like this even if they understood its value because it’d be way too complicated to implement and very expensive in terms of securing the necessary land. It wasn’t that long ago that there weren’t hardly any overland buses in the country because the roads were too bad. Very soon, with the country constantly growing in wealth and tourism expanding, the present non-system will become increasingly dysfunctional.
The municipality made a proposal/plan a few years back to relocate the overland bus terminals to the edge of town believing that would lessen traffic whereas the exact opposite would be true. Presently many people live close to one of the bus terminals, by locating them in the outskirts, nearly everybody would need local transportation to get there thus adding to traffic, not lessening it, not to mention forcing most people to pay the additional cost of the long moto or tuk-tuk ride to the bus terminal.
Anyway, any bus system for the city is progress.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Polyglot Nation: An Overview of Cambodia Today
The Cambodian people run the gamut of skin pigmentations from almost lily white to nearly black as African, but in contrast to America where people are hyphenated as African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, etc., here they are all Khmer: there’s never a hint of differentiation. Closer to home, in neighboring Thailand, people of Chinese ethnic background, even those who are only half ethnically Chinese proudly refer to themselves as Chinese, whereas in Cambodia, if the response of an older Chinese-Khmer woman I know is a valid indicator, ethnically Chinese-Khmer, when asked if they are Chinese, say no, I’m Khmer.
They also cover a wide variety of facial types. First there’s the round faced, broad nosed, medium dark indigenous Malay people, then the very dark, beak-nosed Indians who started migrating here more than a millennium ago, then the light skinned, slanty eyed Chinese who’ve come here consistently over the centuries. Those three basic racial types have mixed very easily since the first migrations so now most people reflect combinations of types. You see narrow eyes on round Malay faces, long Indian noses on light skinned faces and it’s still possible to see quite a few Khmers who look totally Indian or Malay or Chinese and that’s not referring to recent migrants.
That racial melding hasn’t stopped the general population from looking down on dark skin. They all want to be white which is undoubtedly reinforced by everyone who appears in Cambodian television having almost white skin. A lot of the women use various kinds of concoctions, some clearly toxic, to whiten their skin. The problem is it often gives them pale, sickly, leaden almost ghostly look, as well as a little lighter in complexion.
More recently were the European colonizers who added their genes over the last century to the point where, for instance, you can see dark skinned people with green eyes. Finally, today’s immigrants are now mixing with the Khmer people who are coming at least partly as a result of one of the world’s most open immigration policies. The majority of my expat friends have mixed children.
Anybody who wants to live in Cambodia is welcome, though I have heard that immigration officers sometimes try to extort large sums of money from Africans in the visa process. Officially, anyone in the world who thinks they can make it here is welcome to try, there are no restrictions. Moreover, there are no onerous requirements that you leave the country periodically to renew your visa, you can renew it indefinitely within the country. As a result Cambodia has a very diverse expat community that’s becoming integrated into the larger society. In a sense, this may compensate a bit for the loss of so much of the country’s intellectual community in the Khmer Rouge era: people who wore glasses, for instance, were targeted as enemies of the state.
Also targeted at the time as potentially disloyal were the country’s Cham people who are Muslims. While Cambodia is overwhelmingly Buddhist, other religions are tolerated with very few instances of discrimination or communal violence. As opposed to the situation in most other neighboring countries in which many Muslims have been radicalized and/or are participating in violent insurrections, they are completely at peace here. I’ve never caught a whiff of anger or dissent on the part of the country’s Muslims towards the government or any public action to suppress them. People in leadership positions sometimes complain about Christian evangelizing - Seventh Day Adventists are nearly everywhere, as you’ll not be surprised to learn – but there too, there is no public disapproval of any religion. This is all part of the welcome and tolerance Cambodia has towards all who live here or desire to make it their home.
Easy immigration is one of the several reasons why Cambodia had the seventh fastest growing economy in the world over the past decade. Not many people are aware of that fact because the country is so small and is starting from such a small base it just doesn’t register. There are now, I would guess, between 150,000 and 200,000 foreigners living in the country.
They have several functions within the economy. For one, many provide essential services like teaching English in which native speakers cannot be substituted by local teachers. They also are employed in the many non-governmental organizations trying to uplift the nation. Others invest in the country by opening businesses. It is very easy to start new enterprises and there are no requirements of partial local ownership. That’s created a situation in which there are often more businesses oriented towards the expat community and tourist trade than can be currently supported; they are generally ahead of the curve. But it also can happen that lots of new businesses will attract the customers.
Both sectors, expats and tourists, are growing rapidly so I expect the new entrepreneurs are hoping customers will eventually come. Tourism has increased tenfold since I first arrived in 2001 from 200,000 per year to more than 2 million. I’m constantly surprised at the number of ordinary looking, middle aged, middle class people wandering around Cambodia in contrast to a decade ago when only the most intrepid traveler would dare to come. In Siem Reap, gateway town to the Angkor temples, that’d be expected since it’s one of the great wonders of the ancient world, but to see them in Phnom Penh and other small towns is still a shock to me.
The majority of tourists in Cambodia come to take in the temples and visit no other part. Angkor Wat refers to the largest and grandest of the temples, which were built between the eighth and twelfth centuries, but there are about half a dozen other temples of breathtaking stature and lots of smaller ones in an archeological park that encompasses about 50 square miles –125 square kilometers. I spent three days wandering around the area, two days on bicycle, and still did not take in all the major sights.
The problem with having a business in Cambodia is the great difference between high and low seasons. Even if it does well in high season, it might only break even during the slow half of the year. If you’ve ever dreamed of opening a bar, for instance, with five or ten grand you can be in business in no time. If you don’t make a lot of money it also doesn’t take a lot to keep it going, though rents are going up in the more expat/tourist parts of Cambodia.
Finally there are the retirees like myself and others who have independent means so don’t need to work, who only add income to the country. We come for the low cost and ease of living: For as little as $150 or $200 per month one can rent a decent - but not fancy - apartment in the heart of Phnom Penh. The other attraction is the very open and friendly nature of the Khmer people. Khmer parents teach their little ones to say hello to every white face they see.
It isn’t just the small timers that are attracted to Cambodia. There are now nine mobile phone companies, though there will soon be some consolidation happening since the market simply can’t support that many. Still, do you have a spare $100 million and want to have your very own phone company? No problem, it’s your gamble. If you lose your wad in Cambodia, it’s no loss to the country. The country now has 31 banks… and, once again, there’s always room for more if you’ve got the wherewithal. Most are internationally based with eight or ten countries represented. It’s hard for me to imagine where the customers will come from - Cambodia itself certainly can’t support that many - but the ease of opening banks may turn the country into an international banking center. Eighty or ninety percent of transactions are in US dollars which I imagine would facilitate banking on a more than national scale.
The recent run-up in property prices until the crash in 2008 was also a major factor in the country’s growth. Property prices went through the roof and helped to create a construction boom, which is continuing, if currently somewhat subdued. Even now with values cut in half, per square meter prices in central Phnom Penh are equal to those in Seoul, a first world city with eight times the population. I too got caught up in the enthusiasm and bought a small plot of land but now, if I can find a buyer, I’ll be lucky to get back what I paid.
The run up in prices has resulted in a lot of displacement and land grabbing. The Khmer Rouge abolished all private property and then torched almost all the records, leaving land ownership very murky. In addition, whole families were wiped out, leaving many properties without owners. Out of that confusion, laws were passed which give anyone living on land for five years ownership rights. That worked fine when prices were rock bottom, but as soon as land became valuable, conflicts arose. In some cases, after villagers have lived on land for ten or twenty years, a well connected individual appears with paperwork saying he/she purchased the land ten years previously. The peons are powerless against the elite in that event. Urban squatters are booted off land they’ve lived on for a long time and are compensated, but not at anywhere near the current price level. Once the land is cleared, it is sold off to developers at high prices.
The other mainstay of the economy is the garment industry which now has more than 300,000 workers and is responsible for 90% of the country’s exports. That growth was facilitated by a quota system put in place by the US and Europe to insure that several countries could develop garment industries and not allow China take over the entire sector itself. The entire industry is unionized. Many manufacturers hate that and do their best to harass union reps, as you would find in a lot of places. On the other hand, some retailers, The Gap and Levi’s, for example, purchase from Cambodia specifically to be able to say that their workers have union representation and are treated fairly. That fair-labor part of the industry makes up about 20% of output. Workers are not shy about asserting their rights and strikes and wildcat strikes are not infrequent.
In spite of a recent small increase, wages are still pretty dismal at $61 per month for 60 hour weeks, but for many workers that still provides a much better income than they could otherwise obtain. Even at that paltry sum, many workers send money home to their families. The unions have been fighting for $93 per month, what they calculate is a living wage, but that’s very unlikely to happen soon considering the fierce competition in the sector from other even lower cost countries like Bangladesh. They may, in the end, be able to convince the government to raise the minimum wage to around $75.
Cambodia expects to export nearly 4 million tons of rice next year but the sector is barely developed so almost all of that is in the form of paddy, or unmilled rice. The country is working on upgrading its processing facilities so it can sell milled rice at international standards but that’s still a ways off. Also lots more can be done to increase the harvest. Yeilds are higher in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, world’s biggest and second biggest rice exporters, because they use a lot more fertilizer. They are also far more advanced than Cambodia in using irrigation so get three crops a year to one here. This is a very watery country so there’s no shortage of resources for irrigation.
While corruption here is all pervasive it seems to have little effect on the country’s pace of development and in some ways facilitates it. There are substantial informal fees involved with starting a business, but they make for a speedy process. In some ways living with corruption makes life easier. For instance, when I went through an agent to get my Cambodian driver’s license I was told I had to pay an extra $5 for an eye test since I was over 60. But, the fellow said, this is Cambodia so you don’t need to take a test only pay the five dollars. Passing an eye test would be no problem, but finding the office, possibly waiting around for service and especially dealing with bureaucrats with limited English language skills could be a real hassle, so a little corruption was a small blessing. Since I had a valid license from another country I was issued a license without having to pass any kind of test. And if you get caught driving without one a simple bribe of $5 or $10 will get you on your way. Since the license costs $40, it’d probably be cheaper to pay an occasional ‘fine’ than be totally legal. Anyway I prefer having all my paperwork in order.
All in all, in spite of endemic corruption, intense poverty and immense social problems, the country is at peace with less conflict and unrest than almost all surrounding countries. And in spite of many and glaring deficiencies it is also more democratic than most in the region. When polled eighty percent of the people approve the direction the country’s going in. Without getting into politics, the current prime minister, now in power for 24 years, has brought stability and growth in a very free and open economy and the future is looking good.