Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bokor Update and Chugging Away

Cambodians have a bad habit of leaving their vehicle engines running for no apparent or valid reason….
But first a Bokor update.
Rumors have been swirling around Kampot that the casino at Bokor is about to close. It wouldn’t make much sense to do that now with high season nearly upon us, but a cursory observation would indicate that closing might well be in the offing, or at least that it wouldn’t be hard to understand why. I went up with a couple of friends at the beginning of November; one wanted to stop in the casino. It was a Wednesday afternoon at 2 pm and there were about ten cars in the 300 car parking lot. Inside, staff outnumbered gamblers about 10 to 1. Out of 6 fancy automated roulette tables my friend was the only player. When we passed by on our way home at about 4 pm there were three tour buses and a few more cars, but still nowhere near enough to sustain such a big operation.
One of the guys was up at Bokor last April at New Year’s just after the casino was opened for business. The popular parts of the plateau were crowded with people but the casino was deserted. Khmers are not allowed to gamble - though simple bribes to doormen or pretending to be Philippino will often get them in - so it’s technically dependent on expats or tourists.
Their disappointment with casino traffic is probably why they instituted a fee for entering the park; 10,000r for a passenger car. What’s more they are vigilant about checking whether you’ve paid once to get up top. When they first opened it was free, now they’re scrounging for whatever nickels and dimes they can scare up. One of the guys spent some time talking to a land salesman at the scale model. They’re asking $227,000 for a 600 square meter building lot, $454,000 for 1300 square meters – nearly $400 per meter. We’re talking real money here. Of course they say sales are good, but I have my doubts. Nonetheless, new access roads are being carved into the scrub trees all over the plateau.
The giant restaurant building seating at least 300 people that sits almost right on top of the waterfall has been outfitted with tables and chairs, but wasn’t open yet. Wouldn’t have mattered much, on that Wednesday afternoon in November there weren’t 100 visitors, maybe not even 50, roaming around the whole plateau.
One other curious note is that while a lot of work has taken place on rebuilding the old hotel - almost all the walls had been replastered, for instance - there was no work taking place when we were there, though it was a weekday and no holiday that I could think of. Another indicator that things aren’t going as well as expected?
I can’t say I wish them luck, because I’d rather they go broke, but that’s just my take on what a national park should be. With all the millions being spent, there’s not been anything spent on building trails through the mostly intact beautiful old forests or maintaining and signing the ones that already exist.
Once again – fourth time now – the ocean was obscured from view by the nasty weather up there. Maybe it’s just my bad luck. One friend had seen the ocean and he’d only been there once before. At home that evening, there was a string of lightning strikes in town, one of which took out the power and then caused it to go on and off for about three hours. The darkness was convenient for seeing the lightning up on the hill. For about 30 minutes it was nearly continuous, for another hour it was flashing several times a minute. Another not very great selling point for buying land up there.

Chugging Away. As I was out and about in Phnom Penh some time ago I walked by a big SUV idling away at a noodle shop while its owner was having a leisurely bowl. I am making an assumption there, maybe he had popped in for a minute just as I was walking by, but leaving vehicles running, sometimes for relatively long times is very common in Cambodia.
That bad habit is not just unnecessary but positively harmful for the environment. There’s only one legitimate reason to keep a vehicle running for more than 20 or 30 seconds when it’s not going somewhere: that is, if its electrical system has a problem and it won’t start next time you turn the key. If the battery is weak or the starter isn’t functioning properly then it makes sense to keep it chugging away until you need to be moving again. If all relevant systems are in good shape then starting an already warm vehicle results in virtually no wear on the machinery. In a frigid place the engine will get more wear in the first few seconds after starting, until the oil warms up and gets distributed, then it would in hours of use. In the tropics even that type of wear is negligible. In the above mentioned case, it was a nearly new luxury car so it’s very unlikely to have had a starting problem.
Meanwhile, it’s a total waste of fuel and results in air and sound pollution. It also adds to global warming and even warming of the immediate surroundings. Walk by a car with its engine running and even on the hottest day it’ll feel even hotter to be near.  
As I remember it was owned by someone connected to the government. Many of those people get free petrol: 50 liters a month for the higher mucky-mucks; 20 for lesser factotums. That would have made it easier to discount the cost of fuel, though anyone who can afford $100,000+ for a new Lexus or Land Rover wouldn’t be worried about the cost of running it. At any rate lots of owners of old jalopy trucks who obviously don’t have money to burn do the same and they, unfortunately, make a lot more pollution.
Evidently the cost of petrol here is so low, even at $1.25 per liter – about $4.70 per US gallon – that the expense of running the engine needlessly does not enter the equation. This ‘cheap’ gas is headed the way of the dodo bird, what with car ownership and other fossil fuel uses growing very fast in a context of the world’s finite resources. In the two behemoth developing nations, China and India, which together house 40% of world population, and a lot of other countries - even including Cambodia - fossil energy consumption is expanding at a torrid rate. No matter how many new sources are found, we are going to run out. When the crunch comes and prices skyrocket – visualize $5 per liter – those giant vehicles that crowd Phnom Penh’s streets will be nearly useless.
Vietnam and Thailand and quite a few other countries in the region and around the world, heavily subsidize petrol as a benefit to their people. It makes their industry more competitive and many citizen’s lives a bit easier but it’s a very dangerous practice since it’s nearly impossible to take that benefit away once people have gotten used to it. When gas prices rise substantially those governments find themselves in untenable situations. Indonesia, for instance, now spends 20% of its budget on fuel subsidies instead of that money being available for the country’s many pressing problems. In Jordan, as I’m penning this, there are riots over the government’s plan to end fuel subsidies. A few months ago it was Nigeria which was going through turmoil over the end of cheap fuel.
Besides, a large part of the subsidies go to the middle class and rich who really don’t need help with fuel costs. Many people in that situation drive more – using more fuel, making more pollution, etc. - than they would otherwise because it’s so cheap. Governments have fallen after trying to increase prices to world levels. Cambodia also spends a lot on fuel subsidies but since they only go to the favored few in the government, that cost may be sustainable for a while longer. It makes sense for governments to subsidize food, for instance, since people aren’t going to eat more just because it’s cheaper, unless they’ve been hungry in the past, and that’s not a problem. Health care, education; of course, no better way to spend money than on a healthy, educated population. But fuel, a big mistake.
In a similar vein, last hot season, during one of our regular power outages, a friend spotted the family next door pouring out of their apartment and into their black SUV to take advantage of the air-conditioner. Some spendy chillin’ that; running a 6-liter V-8 to keep a handful of people cool. The patriarch was a military man so he too probably was on the free-fuel dole. (I know a guy back in the states who does something similar though on a much smaller scale. He won’t get into his car on a hot day until he’s had it running long enough to let the air-con chill it down. How long could it take for the air-conditioner in a new mid-level car to get the temperature down to a comfortable level? 20 seconds? There isn’t a lot of fuel, pollution or cost involved, but still waste is waste.)
It’s important to note that the car was black. A couple issues back this mag had an aerial picture of the parking lot at the PM’s office building on Russian Boulevard. It looked like a sea of big black SUVs. There’s a movement afoot in America to ban black cars (freaky, extremist, eco-radicals, no doubt) which sounds at first to be a bit wacky, but consider; it costs more to air-con a black car than a white one. It’s no secret that black absorbs heat: put your hand on a white car in the sun and it feels hot; try to do same on a black car and you’ll burn your hand. Luxury cars are well insulated but that doesn’t change the fact that some of that heat gets through and so it still costs more to air-con than a white car. Just going from white to black adds 2% to fuel cost.
There are many variables in calculating the cost of vehicle air con so it’s hard to pinpoint a firm number. Among the variables is car speed, outside temperature and color. If you’ve got the windows open at highway speeds, wind drag cancels out some of the savings from not using the air-con. At slow in-town speeds there’s not much air drag.
 Here are few factoids: Air-con adds on average 10 to 15% to the cost of operating the vehicle. It costs the same to air-condition an average size car as it does to keep it going at 35mph – about 55kph. Using air-con in very small vehicles, like a 1300cc Tico for instance, increases cost by about 50%. A study of German cars showed they used between 2.75 liters and 4.25 liters more fuel per 100 kilometers of travel.   
I try to avoid air-conditioning because I simply don’t like it but there are times when it is important. When I first started teaching in Phnom Penh in 2001 I worked at Norton U. where the classrooms were not yet air-conditioned. It was hell trying to talk over street noise – car horns, screaming kids, weddings, etc. - and several large fans blasting away at high speed. Air-con is the only reasonable alternative in that situation. I also get tired of keeping the windows open when I’m driving down the highway with all the noise and wind, so I turn it on here and there.
I understand that some people can’t deal with the heat, but with the planet hotting up it’d be good to try to get used to it. On the other hand, the planet’s gonna fry anyway, so why bother, just turn up the air-con.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pull Tabs and Alcohol Advertising

Just before Cambodia beer made its recent debut, the government declared that all alcohol advertising should be banned, to improve road safety among other things. They quickly realized that that would be impractical and amount to a drastic change since beer posters and banners are ubiquitous and seemingly are just about the only decoration the typical local Khmer restaurant or bar has available.
But at least they figured they could prohibit those pull tab beer promotions, except that Cambodia beer had just come online with one and, well, since they had no warning of the change it didn’t seem right to stop them. So okay, that’ll be the last pull tab promotion. Now several months later the pull tab ban has been forgotten and all three major beer brands are competing with those same promotions. I personally have a strong distaste for them for two reasons; they’re not likely to be recycled and they’re a bloody nuisance.
As to the former, while it’s true that they are very small, when you’re talking about hundreds of millions of them, it starts to add up. Regarding the nuisance part, while thinking about this month’s topic I saw a bar girl cut her finger on one. Okay, a good point to make but hostesses can be ditzy so not necessarily a strong argument against pull tabs. Then a few days later as I was formulating this article in my mind, I cut my own finger. Yes, I am approaching geezerhood and I have been getting clumsy of late – reaching for things which fly out in all directions instead of being held in my normally firm grip – but still, is it really a good idea to have millions of sharp little objects floating around the environment? The tab which bit me was being crunched up so I could put it back into a can and recycle it. I used to put them back in while there was still beer in the can – otherwise they often don’t get recycled – but they would sometimes come back out into my mug, so I gave up on that one.
Pull tabs were banned in Oregon in the early seventies so the nasty little buggers are deep in my consciousness. Digression: I realize I mention Oregon a lot in these articles, but it is a special place: Oregon is to the US as Cambodia is to southeast Asia; a small, friendly, easy going, low key place to live or visit. Now I understand that few readers of this article have any interest at all in going to America, but if you do, skip New York, Florida and California, the big three tourist magnets, and head to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. If you have to do the big three, at least make a little time to get off the beaten path.
One of the great things about Oregon is its 100% public coastline; there are no private beaches and no private land within the riparian zone; it’s the only state that I’m aware of where that is true. One of things people most like to do on the coast is walk the beaches. Before the ban people were getting their feet cut up by pull tabs strewn around the sand and that was the impetus behind their prohibition.
Personally, I find it hard to imagine how pull tab prizes would encourage people to drink, only possibly change their brand. It’s also debatable exactly how much advertising of alcohol affects the total amount consumed. Alcohol has been around as long as Western civilization: I never tire of pointing out that Jesus’ first miracle involved changing water into wine. Supplies were depleted at the wedding at Cana at least partly because of  Jesus’ presence, since a lot of extra guests came to see Him… He figured it was important to let the celebration continue. To let the good times keep rolling.
I don’t think my own intake is affected by advertising, though it’s hard to say what deep, deep subliminal messages were planted in my brain from an early age. I certainly find it difficult to go a day without at least a couple of beers; the only exception being if I’ve got a raging hangover from the night before. Alcohol is a great mellower, relaxer, easer of tension and obliterator of inhibitions. It’s also been shown to be benign healthwise when done in moderation. Studies have shown that people who have two drinks a day live longer than total teetotalers. No need to mention that serious souses don’t live all that long.
This brings up another ‘big’ question. Does the moderate imbiber live longer in spite of drink or because of it? Is that moderate amount of alcohol still a negative for your body but its evils counterweighted by the good it does to your mental attitude? In a perfect world where everybody is high and happy on life, would there no longer be a market for alcohol? Would people no longer need an escape? Would drinking become history?
Clearly, no need to worry about that now, the insanity and inanity of life demands palliative care – at least it does for me and most of you out there reading this. What would be good to know is the impact of advertising on individual consumption and the total number of imbibers.
The subject of banning alcohol advertising in Cambodia was brought up again at the beginning of October in a conference organized by the Ministry of Information, National Road Safety Committee and World Health Organization. An official from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport who attended was quoted as saying that “…traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities can be prevented through… control over alcohol advertisements promoting drinking.” They no longer seek to ban all advertising but want to include ‘don’t drive drunk’ messages on labels and prohibit all audio and text on TV beer ads. Another person interviewed for the article said reducing drunk driving is more a changing of attitudes towards it and better enforcement, which I tend to agree with.
Nevertheless, advertising has to have an effect: when a young malleable mind sees posters or TV ads showing happy smiling beer drinkers with beautiful girls (or boys) at their elbows, it has to make an impression. When my son was a teenager he referred to drinking as ‘romantic’. That’s exactly the image that alcohol purveyors seek to implant.
On the topic of the impact of advertising, let me refer again to a study done on young children a few years back. Three- to five-year-old kids were given a MacDonald’s hamburger in a Mac wrapper and an identical one in a plain wrapper. They did the same for fries and baby carrots, which MacDonald’s doesn’t sell. In every case, by a wide margin, the kids said the food in the Mac wrapper tasted better.
So the next time you have a hankering for a Big Mac, think about it, are you craving it because you’re hungry and it tastes good, or because you subconsciously expect it to make you happy? Or help you find the girl or boy of your dreams? Contentment? Enlightenment? Considering what goes into them – lettuce soaked in a chemical bath to keep it looking fresh far longer than it ought to – and how they’re made, taste is probably not your true motivator.
I’m quite certain ads have no effect on my alcohol habit, or whether I drive under the influence, but there are a lot of impressionable people out there and it’s not hard to imagine that a lot of them are encouraged to drink through advertising; we’re all looking for a good time, no? What’s more, though a couple of beers a day may be perfectly okay, we all know how easy it is to go overboard. Even many of us who don’t get flat out, laying-in-the-gutter drunk, still have a tendency to find it hard to stop at the benign 2-drink level. Let’s face it, every time you wake up weak, woozy, headachy from an over-the-top bout with alcohol the night before, you have tortured your body, put it through the ringer. Sure it was great for your head - you had a jolly old time - but it was equally bad for your body.
There are many aspects that have given alcohol its well-deserved bad rep. The accidents, the slobbering, puking, drunkenness, the craziness, the violence, the diseases, the addiction are all undeniably points of negativity and danger. Americans thought it was so evil back in the early 20th century they banned it. Conservative Christians, Hindus and Muslims are all down on boozin’. (I’m convinced the reason why Arabs in particular and Muslims in general are so contentious, quick to anger and prone to indulge in fundamentalism is the prohibition of alcohol, sex and drugs along with the heavy consumption of strong coffee. Under that regimen, I’d be freaking mad too.)
On the above basis, I think all adverts should be banned. People could easily find it without marketing if they’re into it, but there’s no good reason for encouraging people to drink more than they otherwise would. There’s also no good reason to allow advertising to romanticize it by drawing alluring but ultimately false impressions of drinking that makes it seem so acceptable and benign without also insuring that people understand the reality, the dark side.
My other major complaint with alcohol ads in Cambodia simply has to do with esthetics. It totally uglifies the country to have ubiquitous beer posters marring the countryside and city entertainment districts. At one point I thought of taking a nighttime picture of Street 136, but then when I looked I realized all you would see was lighted beer signs. Tacky, trashy, ugly as sin is what comes to mind.
Instead of interesting, artistic, catchy logos individually designed and created for each bar, you have a line of beer signs all in similar colors since all three main brews are very close in the impression they give. And what do the bar owners get for trashing the visual scene? They get a free sign in which the top half is beer ad and in the other half the Khmer name is much larger than the English; by law the Khmer is supposed to be three times the size of the English. When making your own sign you can fudge on that requirement. The part that means anything to the bar’s promotion comes down to about a third of the sign’s area. For that they save a big $50; the cost of a sign without the beer ad top. They pay tens of thousands of dollars to create a really nice looking bar and then allow it to be totally tackified to save a lousy fifty bucks. But maybe people don’t realize how cheap they are; well now you know.
I can see, for instance, a bar having a small lighted sign saying which beer it has on tap, but coasters, bar mats, umbrellas, posters, banners, large lighted signs and more? I can understand why local funky Khmer establishments would think a free sign is a great thing because they work on a really small margin and besides have no idea how hideous their beer-poster décor looks. They have no clue of how tasteless it is to cover the surface of all your walls with beer ads. But a westerner? C’mon man, ambiance, style, individuality and taste are important.
All that ranting aside, if you’re one of the many bar-owner friends of mine who’ve succumbed to the lure of a free sign, forgive me for being so indelicate. I realize it’s not always that easy to be different, to buck the trend since most people are doing it. Please don’t take it personally, it’s just part of venting my loathing of advertising in general. Money isn’t the root of all evil, advertising is.
While I can’t imagine that beer advertising will ever be completely banned in Cambodia, esthetically it would be a wonderful gift for Phnom Penh and the whole country.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

China Says Jump; Cambodia Asks, How High?

Two months after the last Asean – Association of Southeast Asian Nations – meeting, Cambodia is still catching flak for torpedoing a joint statement that would have referenced the territorial dispute in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines and Vietnam; Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims but they’ve maintained a lower profile. Vietnam and the Philippines wanted the closing statement to ask all parties to adhere to a code of conduct and abide by basic rules of the sea. It was the first time in the Association’s 45 year history that no closing communiqué was agreed upon.
Since Cambodia holds the rotating chair this year it did its damnedest to prevent any language not approved by Beijing. At one point it went so far as to cut off the microphone of the Philippine representative to prevent him from speaking. In response to Philippine complaints which were still being voiced long after the meeting, the Cambodian ambassador to that country wrote a scathing article accusing the Philippines of ‘dirty politics’ and saying it was trying to sabotage the meeting by injecting outside matters into it. That prompted the Philippine government to summon the ambassador for a dressing down – to register its own complaint at the Cambodian ambassador’s decidedly undiplomatic tone. The ambassador never showed up. With great surprise and raised eyebrows all around, Cambodia declared a few days later that he didn’t show because he’d already been reassigned. In typical Cambodian fashion the easiest way to deal with the situation was to avoid it with a tall tale nobody would ever believe. At least, in Cambodian reality, the confrontation was avoided by a little diplomatic sleight-of-hand.
It’s not hard to understand Cambodia’s extreme deference to China’s political needs as it’s the country’s foremost donor and financier. Think roads, railroads, bridges, dams, irrigation; the money keeps poring in. The dams are generally BOT, or build, operate for a long period and then transfer to the government. The rest are concessionary loans; that is, loans at lower than market interest, though considering how flush China is, the interest rates are higher than they need to be or should be. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of money flowing in and it’s made a clear difference in Cambodia’s development. The latest tranche, announced September 4, amounted to $523 million, five hundred of which is loans for unspecified infrastructure projects, a cool $23 mil grant for the PM to use at his discretion.
Sin Serey, Cambodia’s ambassador to Singapore, in response to an opinion piece in Thai newspaper The Nation accusing Cambo of being too closely aligned with China is quoted as saying, “Cambodia, a country with great civilization and culture for thousands of years, is not a Banana Republic. Cambodia has not been and will never be kowtowing to any country.” Of course not! However, according to Prime Minister Wen Jaibao, China will ‘closely coordinate’ with Cambo on the upcoming Asean meeting in November. But hey, that’s not kowtowing, only coordinating. He also thanked Cambodia for helping China maintain friendly relations with the Asean countries. Cambodia insists (paraphrasing from the same article) it’s not taking sides but actually taking a principled stand in urging members to settle their differences with China bilaterally, exactly China’s position. Well, now, if you were a 900 pound gorilla would you want to take on a pack of hungry hyenas one at a time or all together?
The dispute centers around China’s claim to the entire South China Sea encompassing about 2 million square kilometers, including areas that are very close, within figurative spitting distance, to the other countries but far from China, more than 2000 kilometers from the nearest mainland Chinese territory. Proximity doesn’t always infer right of ownership, but it’s a strong determining factor nonetheless. China’s claim goes back to the fifties when it drew a line around the South China Sea and said this is ours based on historical precedents. This would be akin to Mexico claiming California based on historical ownership while ignoring current US possession of more than 150 years. Or Spain claiming the same because they were there first, or why not go all the way back to Native Americans making the same claim?
There are three areas of concern regarding potential Chinese ownership of the whole South China Sea: first is possession of natural resources, supposedly there’s a lot of oil under the sea; two is fishing rights, in a very densely populated part of the world, of utmost importance; three, and most worrying for the international community is sea transport; about half of all oil shipments in the world and a commensurate amount of other trade passes through the South China Sea. It wasn’t till the seventies during China’s Cultural Revolution that serious claims were made in the area.
The current dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands – Daioyu in Chinese - in the East China sea is also instructive. Japan took over control of the uninhabited islands in 1895 when nobody was there and no other claims of sovereignty existed. It wasn’t until 1971, 76 years after Japan first took over, that China made its first claim or mentioned them at all. What is Japan supposed to do? take a deep bow and say, We’re sorry we’ve occupied your islands for more than a century, if it hurts your feelings we’ll pack up tomorrow.
Recent Chinese aggressiveness stems from three factors; a longtime inferiority complex and resulting quest for revenge regarding perceived past wrongs done to them, a desire on the part of the government to stoke the fires of nationalism to help it maintain control and divert people’s attention from the deficiencies of autocratic government, and a heady power that comes from their newfound economic prowess and wealth.
Chinese are still furious about the way they were humiliated by the British more than 160 years ago in the Opium Wars. They are rightly proud of their long history and rich culture but still don’t grasp how their xenophobia, feeling of superiority and aloofness back then kept them from changing and adapting to the modern world and thus made them vulnerable to relatively very small forces from the outside. Japan too made them feel small and inadequate in its easy takeover of parts of the country and the ruthless way Chinese people were treated. Now that they are borderline rich and powerful, they feel the need for revenge.
Still Japan is an important trading partner, to the tune of $350 billion annually, and investor and employer of many Chinese so it would seem to behoove China to minimize conflict with Japan. Recent news articles have implicated China in organizing the anti-Japan protests, which have turned violent and caused many Japanese to reconsider their commitment to China, all the while the state media counsel calm and non-violence. In Qingdao on September 15, rioters/looters spent more than four hours causing $30 million damage to a Japanese-Chinese joint venture supermarket. If they were Tibetans, Uighers or Falun Gong practitioners peacefully demonstrating they’d have their heads bashed in and taken to jail in a wink and a nod, but somehow the police in one of China’s largest cities stood helpless for 4 hours while a large supermarket was being ransacked.
Do they expect to humiliate Japan by forcing them to abandon the islands and still expect that country to maintain its massive industrial presence there? Maybe they feel so rich and powerful they can forego that economic relationship in spite of the great loss to both economies.
Let me relate an incident from my own experience while living in China in the mid-nineties. For three days Chinese TV news headlined a story about a few shipping containers from a recycler in New York that were sold as recycled scrap paper but actually were garbage. The question, continually repeated by news anchors in an insulted and angry tone was, Why is America sending us its garbage?
Having spent quite a few years in a cooperative recycling business in Portland I can offer a little background. Scrap paper is almost worthless. We received a token $5 per ton for it and the brokers received their shipping costs but not much more. We recycled it in spite of the loss because we believed in the cause. It all went to China where their low cost of labor allowed them to pick through it to pull out the more valuable stuff before recycling the rest for low quality uses. Because it was mixed paper people often mistook it for garbage, or would carelessly toss garbage in with it. Knowing the waste paper business and the probable lackadaisical attitude towards recycling in New York at the time, it wouldn’t be surprising if some or even a lot of garbage got mixed with the paper. It also wouldn’t be surprising if an unscrupulous outfit purposely misrepresenting their garbage as paper to save the cost of disposal and receive money for their ‘paper’. So a few containers worth a few hundred dollars sent by a private company became America Sending China its Garbage as an outrage and humiliation.
My Chinese wife, who I brought to America a year or so later, was amazed to see Made in China everywhere. So at the same time the Chinese media was casting America in the most derogatory terms as a means of stoking nationalism, it was making bundles of money while taking over the American market. I haven’t been back to China in 16 years but everything I hear tells me nothing really has changed.
For 16 years and more the US has been complaining about China’s manipulation of its currency to make their goods artificially cost less and for the same length of time China has promised to change and proceeded with very small adjustments just barely enough to temporarily appease the US and its other trading partners but not enough to change the reality on the ground. During that time it has amassed $3 trillion worth of foreign reserves, mostly in US dollars. This all came about because of capitalism’s love of doing business with a state which maintains firm control of its workers; forbidding unions or protests or any kind of dissention from the party line.
China for its part has taken the ball and run with it. With a combination of smarts and hard work in addition to currency and market manipulation and repression of workers, it has become too powerful not to want to flex its muscles and take what it considers its rightful place in the world, with threats of force if necessary.
China is now a communist country in name only. When I lived there my wife was a teacher in a minority kids’ boarding school. The teachers, administrators, students and maintenance staff all lived at the school in a gated complex. Health care and all social benefits were enjoyed by all. The maintenance staff lived in quite mean circumstances compared to the headmaster, but nothing like the gulf between the two levels today. At one point I met an important fellow who I was told had a lot of money. He rode a bicycle like everyone else because he didn’t want to flaunt his wealth. That’s communism. All that is finished, people are now on their own; the grave to cradle safety net - the Iron Rice Bowl - has been shredded.
Today, China much more closely fits the description of fascism. Quoting from my dictionary. “Fascism is a set of right-wing political beliefs that includes strong control of society and the economy by the state, a powerful role for the armed forces, and the stopping of political opposition.”
China has perfected the philosophy: The state controls everything important, all opposition is repressed, leaders live like royalty while the peasantry are exploited and oppressed for the benefit of the nation. Nationalism fits perfectly into the fascist mindset..
Consider the plight of China’s hundreds of millions of migrant workers. They work excessive hours for low wages, are segregated from and looked down upon by their fellow urbanites, they receive no benefits in the cities they live in, including not having the right to send their children to school, let alone healthcare or any other social services. They’ve worked hard to make China rich without receiving any of the benefits that are their due and certainly would be forthcoming in a true communist state. Illegal immigrants in America have more rights and receive more benefits than Chinese migrant workers in their own country. 
The question is why act the bully and turn your whole neighborhood into a conflict zone using a flimsy, if not specious, historical argument for a bunch of small uninhabited islands? China is a great country: Even if there are natural resources there, why play the ruffian and antagonize everyone around you? The answer is twofold: autocratic leaders need to feed the fires of nationalism to maintain their power, and they are basically clueless. Just as most Chinese people blindly follow the party line, the leadership is prone to take stands which almost everyone else in the world considers ridiculous. Their vendetta against the Dalai Lama is a case in point. He is very widely, if not universally, recognized outside of China as a wise and great spirit, an advocate for peace, yet to China he’s pure evil and every time he goes to visit another country China lodges a protest and threatens vague repercussions. To the rest of the world their attitude towards the Dalai Lama makes them a laughingstock. They are either so far out of touch they are oblivious or maybe they do understand the absurdity of their positions but don’t care because they cravenly feel the need to use him as a nationalistic focus, a foil to help maintain their power.
China has money to burn and knows how to use it to make friends with countries like Cambodia. Recognizing how important China is to Cambodia’s development plans, Cambodia will do all in its power to protect China’s interests, even against the wishes and interests of its neighbors.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Kampot Chronicles August 2012

Kampot Chronicles - August 2012

A friend, who I’ve known practically since I first came to Cambodia almost ten years ago, stopped by in Kampot, first time for him in several years: his observation; This town is really boutiquey. Being as he’d just spent several months in Koh Kong, just about anything would seem boutiquey… but still… the little Pot has definitely become a destination for travelers and expats, indicated by the number of shops selling trinkets, tourist clothes and Kampot pepper that’ve cropped up in the past year or so. Kampot pepper now has a geographic designation, which means the name cannot be used elsewhere and has considerably raised demand for it. We’re also Cambodia’s center of sea salt production, so salt and pepper town.
Kampot is nothing compared to the tourist/expat Mecca’s of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, but it’s also far from the foreigner deserts of all the other small towns in Cambo. A friend, who’s lived in Battambang - Cambodia’s second largest city - for quite a long time came to visit last year; he was amazed at the number of white faces ambling around town.
There are advantages of a little boutiqueiness. While I’m perfectly comfortable in local restaurants and bars outfitted with plastic chairs, fold-up metal tables, glaring bright white florescent lights and décor consisting exclusively of beer posters and pennants, there is some comfort in surroundings created with the Westerner in mind. For one, in place of a TV blasting out Khmer karaoke songs or cartoons or soap-opera-dramas dubbed in Khmer, you get to hear those old familiar songs and musical styles. While I’m capable of handling an el cheapo cup of bitter, low quality coffee embellished with a super-sweet, pseudo-milk dairy creamer, a real cup of quality java is a positive treat. Kampot now has two, soon-to-be three, coffee shops in the western tradition.
It takes a minimum of expat/travelers to support those types of venues. I don’t have any problem seeing lots of backpackers around as do some of my friends who get nervous and tetchy in their presence (actually, seeing people wheeling suitcases around rough third world streets and sidewalks looks a lot stranger to me) and I do appreciate that there’re enough of them around to enable a variety of businesses to sprout.
It wasn’t that long ago that I had a couple or three bars to go to and had some days off in between. I’d get my entertainment kicks in the capital and return for an R and R in Kampot. Now, what with all that’s happening around town, I have to force myself to take a night or two off.
For one there’s the Tuesday night trivia quiz at Blissful Guest House. The quiz consists of a picture round where you need to name people or places - one time it was boobs - followed by two general questions rounds - quick, What’s the coldest capital city in the world? Ulan Bator, Mongolia. How many languages does BBC broadcast in? 27. What century was the main temple at Angkor Wat built? 12th. Finally there’s a music round where you have to identify both song and artist from the first five or ten seconds of the track. Since my team is a bunch of geriatrics, we pretty much fall down on almost anything recorded past the seventies and eighties, so we have to do very good on the general questions before the music round or we’re sunk. After bringing up the rear for a couple of weeks, and not winning for about two months, we’ve won twice in a row as of this writing. Prize is a 3-liter tower of beer.
Then there’s live music. It’s the August mini-high season and there are 5 nights a week of scheduled music. A lot of the same guys are involved but there’s a different mix on almost every occasion. Since I play conga drums I can sit in almost any night. There are also special events; the Greenhouse had a Saturday night 2 band party with more than 50 people attending. One friend, being too drunk to drive home, rented a room at 2am, another found himself crashed out on the tiny sand beach in the morning. A great time was had by all.
The Greenhouse is the reincarnation of the former Snow’s bar which sat on the river in Phnom Penh for quite a long time. It was carefully dismantled, hauled down here and reassembled in a beautiful spot on Kampot’s river about 7 kilometers from town. About 15% of the building had to be replaced. Now the floor is actually level. The building was improved by removing the low ceiling on the front one third of the structure thus opening it up to the high vaulted ceiling. It’s a special place. 
While I tremendously appreciate the live music and have become addicted to quiz night, the greatest improvement for me personally is Ecran, our new movie theater. There are quite a few things I can say I miss about living in the states; Portland, Oregon in particular. My kids and grandkids and lifelong friends, mountains and forests and seashore crisscrossed with well maintained and marked trails, beautifully preserved architecture and respect for the past, but what I’ve really been missing is intelligent, artistic, brain-teaser flicks. Real movies, not car chase, crash and explode, shoot-em’-ups designed to appeal to teenage boys. Those kind of movies are slick and crafty and the special effects are spectacular, all right, but after 3 or 5 minutes of brilliantly choreographed car chases (or if it’s a Chinese movie, flying-through-the-air kung-fu-fighting) I’m bored silly.
Well, in this case, in terms of my own preferences, we’ve got it all. I’ve been going about twice a week since it opened a month ago, but almost every movie is one I want to see. The Artist, the silent movie that won lots of awards, started it off. Then there was Mr. Nice and Blow, two big-time-drug-dealer movies. 127 hours, the flick about the guy who gets his arm wedged in between two rocks while out hiking and, after more than five days stuck there, has to cut it off to survive. The new Woody Allen; Dangerous Method, the film about the relationship between Jung and Freud; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; three music-hero movies; Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and The Doors: What more could you ask for? And the set up is perfect: 4-meter screen with an excellent sound system and comfortable seating including two platforms with cushions and pillows.
For most of you out there, probably 95%, having a legitimate cinema is not such a big deal because you’re probably in the habit of watching the latest flicks on your TV or computer. But since I don’t do TV - I’ve only cohabited with one for a total of four years since 1965 - a real theater is my only option. Besides, at 71 my eyes aren’t the greatest so I miss a lot watching on a small screen. Add the interruptions and casualness of watching at home and I’m just not interested. I want to be immersed, I want it to be an experience rather than time-killing entertainment. To sum up; I’m thrilled, my prayers have been answered, I couldn’t have done it better.
Then there’s the grass hut/karaoke bars, the small town equivalent of big city hostess venues, which I’ve only recently discovered after nearly five years in Kampot. They’re usually out on the edge of town in a outdoor setting. There’ll be a row of karaoke rooms rentable for $3 per hour and tables under thatch roofs for just drinking. Beers range from 3000 riel to a dollar; usually served warm with ice. Similar to the typical low-cost local restaurant, all the décor is beer posters with an occasional mobile phone poster thrown in for good measure. Strangely enough they often display posters for beers they don’t sell. One has posters for a locally brewed wheat beer! Who ever heard of such a thing? Of course they don’t carry it.
They’re fine just for drinking but if you want female companionship there’s a $3 charge for her to sit at your table, but no extra cost for lady drinks or bar fines for her to leave the premises. Hardly any speak English, so it’s a bit of a challenge communicating. Some of the girls are staff, most are floaters. If a venue is busy they make a few calls and like magic, they’re flooded with staff.
All in all a big challenge for me to stay home a couple nights a week.
There’s been a rush of work restoring or rebuilding riverfront properties. I mentioned that to a friend who told me the authorities told property owners to get it together or else. Of course, I have no idea what the ‘or else’ might entail, but we know how it works here in our adopted home. In some ways the old derelict buildings gave the town some character. Boutiquey is okay but not when it completely takes over the vibe. In any case the renovation is happening and is taking place at the start of a new property bubble. I’ve heard one riverfront owner asking $250,000 for a single shophouse. That price might be justifiable on Phnom Penh’s river, but for Kampot somewhere in the stratosphere in terms of true value. The only way that property could be worth that much is if you think someone else will pay even more for it in the future.
For a simple rule of thumb, figure a property costing $250 grand needs to be able to garner 1% a month of that, or $2500, in rent to justify that price. In Kampot, that’s beyond absurd. The little burg is a special place and growing rapidly, but the most profitable business in town couldn’t afford half that in rent without it eating up almost all of its profits. Still, people with money seem to be starry eyed about the town’s potential and so ridiculous prices are being asked and outsize rents are being paid.
For instance, the owner of the town’s new 8 story hotel set up his kid with a bar on the river. It’s cool, modern, nicely decorated but at a rent of $550 per month for a space that doesn’t extent very far back, a pure cash sink. With utilities and two staff, they’d have to sell close to 60 beers a night to break even, yet in the two months it’s been open I haven’t seen a total of 50 customers the whole time. Sure it’s low season, but still it’s quite unimaginable how they’ll make the rent even in high season, especially with new bars opening regularly and with all the renovating being done, even more new spaces are being created for competitors.
Competition will also come from the renovation of the old market which is nearing completion. In addition to about 80 market stalls which are going for $125 month there’ll be room for several restaurant stalls. Once again, I don’t see where the business is going to come from, but I’ve been wrong about these things many times in the past, so who knows?
With all the push for tourism and expats it came as a great surprise when new directional signs - you know the ones with the giant billboard on top - turned out to be only in Khmer. Even the one on the way up to Bokor has no English. Those are the only ones in the country I’ve seen that don’t include English. What could they have been thinking?
The riverfront walkway renovation is almost complete with a public toilet, of all things, at the north end near the new bridge. The only public space yet to be improved is the pond at the south end of town. It’s 4 or 5 hectares and big enough for boating and other water fun. Technically it’s no longer a pond: it’s gotten so overgrown lately it’s more like a wetland. I sure hope the city has sensitive, green recreational plans for the space but I fear the worst.
Finally, next to the governor’s mansion at the southern end of town, which I understand is slated to become a museum, a new elections office has been constructed. It’s been very nicely done in traditional Cambodian architecture except for two garish semi-circular, three story columns of ultra modern blue glass. Who would do such a thing? That’s like putting flashing electric lights on Angkor Wat… Hey, wait… a few years ago the government did want to brighten up the temples with colored lights, only (thankfully) to be shot down by the Angkor Authority… Oh, well.
My friend, mentioned in the first paragraph, who only planned to stay for a few days, stayed for more than ten. It happens a lot, people come expecting to pass quickly through, but then don’t want to leave.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Down the Drain

Not long after our last flood here in Kampot a couple years back, the PM suggested the river be dredged to prevent a further swamping. (Never mind that that flood was at least partly caused by a breach in Kamchey dam - which the authorities vehemently denied - which was then under construction). Unfortunately, the PM’s grasp of geography leaves a bit to be desired. The river, which is officially called a bay (though I’ve never seen a bay that was a hundred meters wide and more than 10 kilometers long) is in fact an estuary. Dredging it can make no difference to the water level which is based almost entirely on ocean tides with the addition of occasional storm surges from the ocean and heavy rainfall coming down from the mountains. When high tide is combined with the latter two there’s a possibility of flooding. For sure, conditions were ripe for the big flood even without the breach in the dam.
Just the opposite is true when the river is narrowed through filling. Constricting the channel cannot help but exacerbate the flooding problem and that’s exactly what’s been happening. A couple years back a large area of several hectares, just across the river from old town, was filled in. Somebody important must have big plans for the area, though the land sits idle. The river is obviously public space, so filling in that area was clearly a valuable gift to a mighty mucky-muck.
Dredging did commence last dry season and quite a lot of sand was removed. As long as the sand is taken from the center of the river, it shouldn’t cause serious erosion, but it clearly looked like some was dredged very close to the bank, which is almost certain to cause problems later on. Much of the sand went to Singapore, some of it was used to fill in the riverbank. One use is that riverside park is being extended south about 100 meters... a great idea, but not in terms of flooding. On both sides of the river there are now strips of very high piles of sand with no clear purpose that I’m aware of. Dredging and sale of sand was stopped a while back on the PM’s orders, but the sand remains. Property owners along the river also are prone to build retaining walls which extend out into the river a bit.
All of which point to serious problems down the line. I live about 200 meters from the water. I was fortunate during the last flood to be out of town, since the water would’ve been up to the windows in my Camry and essentially trashed it. My landlady was around to raise up everything in the house that could’ve been damaged. The flood previous to that one happened before the dam construction began so flooding is a regular occurrence here. I’m a plant collector and I now have maybe three times as many plants as I did back then - more than 300 potted plants. In case of flooding where the water remains for more than a day most will not make it. As a result I’m mired in the conundrum everyone living in a floodplain faces. I’m very comfortable in an otherwise ideal situation so I have no desire or intention of moving, but man, will I be sad when the torrents rush in… but, it can’t happen to me, can it?
We had another serious flood event in February 2010 that had nothing to do with the river. The authorities were baffled, The river is fine so how could there be a flood? A simple rain gauge would’ve provided the answer since we had 4 1/2 inches - 12 cm - in less than 2 hours. That is a lot of rain to fall in such a short time and was probably a 5 year, maybe even a 10 year event. (Actually, considering that happened in February in the middle of dry season, it was probably a 50 or 100 year event… but that’s not pertinent to the drainage issue.) It’s extremely expensive to build a system designed to handle an event that might happen only once every ten years. Nonetheless, since Kampot is somewhat of a showcase city for tourism the government has lots of money to spend here, so not long after the flood some streets were being torn up in order for much larger drainage pipes to be installed. So now we’re more prepared for extreme rainfalls, but there’ll probably still be considerable flooding in ten year events.
Also, while global warming skeptics will insist and climate scientists will admit that single events cannot be attributed to anthropogenic - human caused - climate change, extreme rainfalls are consistent with climate change models. Warmer air holds more moisture so when it does come down, it’ll come in greater amounts, so we are likely to see ever heavier rainfalls. Just recently in early June an unprecedented 80cm of rain - one year’s worth - fell in a few days on parts of Kyushu, Japan’s southern island. A good indicator for what the future will hold climatewise.
Moving over to Phnom Penh, a very heavy rainfall recently caused severe flooding and prompted many complaints about the ineffectiveness of the $30 million flood control project for the riverside area that was funded by the Japanese. (That was the second of three phases, the first happened around 2004, the third began last January.) That was reported to be a 92mm - 3 1/2 inch - deluge. That amount of rain in a short period of time probably happens once every year or two on average. Once again, as in Kampot, it would be very expensive to design a system capable of handling that amount of water without flooding, though in fact the flooding situation was much improved over the past. Previous to the project, floodwaters would remain very high many hours after the rain had stopped. I remember one time wading across putrid water above my knees at Streets 13 and 154 at midnight, four hours after the rain had stopped about 8 pm. It still floods today, but drains much faster. I wasn’t there for the above event, but I did witness a heavy rainfall in that area that drained within about 30 minutes.
The Japanese project had two parts. One part involved building much larger drains and laying larger drainage pipes under the street. Previously there were single drains with a small reservoir underneath. Today in many locations you’ll see three drainage ports lined up, and if you could look underneath you’d see a relatively large reservoir connecting them. Norodom and Street 154 is a good example.
Most of the $30m was spent on very large underground reservoirs - one is about 260 cubic meters - designed to store water when the river is very high. When the Tonle Sap reaches above the sewer outfalls that drain into it they have to be closed off else high river water would push the sewer water back into the streets. That was by far the biggest expense, but has no effect whatever when the river is low.
One change in the Psar Kandal area that decidedly exacerbated the flooding problem was the paving over of most of the several hectares of the former T-3 prison site at Streets 13 and 154. When the area was a prison it consisted of a lot of small buildings in a campus setting where most of the rainwater that fell there was absorbed into the ground. Now, 90% of the area is impervious surfaces and precipitation goes directly into the drainage system. In Portland, Oregon (and probably most of America) that would not be allowed. Anybody who seeks to pave over a large area there has to include dry wells to absorb rainwater. The well consists of a stack of three 1-meter-diameter concrete pipes (actually since it’s America they’re probably 1 yard diameter, which is almost a meter wide). The lowest one is perforated so that in addition to the well being open at the bottom, collected rainwater can also seep into the ground through the perforations. The entire paved area is sculpted for the rainwater to drain into the dry wells.
Portland has a unitary system where toilet water, gray water (wash water) and rain water are combined and sent to a sewage treatment plant. Needless to say there’s no need for clean rainwater to go through an industrial cleansing process, but separating the systems, in an American context, is a lot more expensive so combined they are. Still, that being the case, the city is keen to reduce the amount of rainwater going into the system as much as possible. Thus the dry well requirement. In addition property owners are given incentives to disconnect their downspouts from the sewers and process rainwater on site and where natural creeks remain, rainwater is diverted to them. I’m not sure if dry wells would work in PP since ground water in rainy season is very close to the surface and rain falls much faster than it does in Oregon.
Cambodia has a dual system where toilet water goes to septic tanks connected to every building and the rest - rain and graywater - goes directly into the drainage system and then dumped without any processing into the rivers. If you are skeptical of the toilet water/septic tank connection, think about those ugly old tank trucks you see around town with their big suction hoses; they’re emptying out full septic tanks. Graywater isn’t toxic, but it is smelly and ugly, so it really should be processed before being dumped into the river. Wetlands work well for that purpose, but there aren’t many (aren’t any) of those around the city anymore. A swamp was drained to make way for Psar Thmei but I doubt if we can go back to the former wetland just to process graywater. Too bad some form of graywater processing wasn’t included in the big Japanese flood control project.
Phnom Penh’s leaders seem to be doing everything they can to exacerbate the flooding problem. Not intentionally, of course, though the end result is the same. In the latest onslaught against the drainage system, the 7 hectares of wetlands on the edge of Olympic Stadium, which were designed into the complex by famed Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann to absorb all of the rain falling there, are currently being filled in. Thus a very large amount of precipitation is being added to the drainage system and a lot of money will be required to minimize flooding from that latest crime against the city’s greenery.
The politicians insist that won’t be a problem, but they’re paid to, prone to, say any inane, ridiculous thing to justify their latest scheme. And I’m not singling out Cambodia’s leaders, it’s a failing of politicians everywhere.
In the North of the city in Russei Keo district there was serious flooding after the lake where the unfinished Camko City project was filled in. Public schools had to be closed for months, people lived with water in their houses for that time. Friends who worked at Lim Kok Weng U. had to drive through foot deep - 30cm - standing water for months. That problem was partly mitigated by spending millions on a pump station and pipes to carry the water further north to a lake that hasn’t yet been filled in. The problem there is that at the height of rainy season all bodies of water are full, so transporting the water north can only cause additional flooding there.  
The third phase of the Japanese flood control project, costing close to $50 million, involves laying more than 20 kilometers of large pipes from as far north as O’ressey market and includes most of the rest of the southern part of the central city - the area within the map we are all so familiar with - to Boeng Trabek in the south. The government website now refers to it a retention pond rather than a lake. Nonetheless, similar to the situation in the north, that lake will naturally fill during the height of rainy season just from its immediate area so transporting large volumes of water there will only move flooding from one part of town to another.
Important people are being given large areas of filled in lakes and wetlands to play with, but the city is left with the consequences of the flooding that’s the inevitable result. Fortunately for Cambodia, Japan is coming up with the funds to pay for mitigation efforts, which have been, in the end result, directly caused by over zealous development. Those efforts may help but they still won’t stop flooding in heavy rainfall events.
Stan Kahn

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Development is More than Bricks and Mortar

A smaller replica of Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument is under construction in Kep. Similar to the original, as you might expect, it’s been sited at the center of an intersection. Kep has appropriate places for a monument that’re not associated with traffic that would’ve been preferable to placement in a traffic circle, but admittedly, visually it looks nice to have your view down a street anchored by a statue or monument.
At least Kep’s Independence Monument is on a street that has little traffic so it’ll be easy as a breeze to not only approach the building but also enter in. That’s in total contrast to the capital where you’d take your life in your hands if you tried to reach the monument on foot and if you did manage to make it there in one piece you’re not permitted to enter the area, but only look from outside. Any kind of peaceful energy you might feel being near it, or reflection or contemplation you might achieve from its vibes would be drowned out by traffic noise. Monuments are supposed to be felt and experienced up close and personal. So what does it mean to have a monument to ‘Independence’ choked by traffic? Well it doesn’t bode well for the concept being portrayed.
Ironically, that inaccessible space is counted as part of the 2% of Phnom Penh devoted to ‘parks’. Technically speaking, I guess you can call that park space, but really, where are the parks in the capital? Riverside Park? Hun Sen Park? They come a lot closer to what a park is than Independence Monument, and are heavily used by the people but still, strips of land that are 80% pavement and the remainder that’s in grass is off limits?
There are no places similar to what we refer to as parks in America or Europe or even other Asian cities. You know, places for sports with tennis and volleyball courts and football fields; with picnic benches for outdoor meals and grassy lawns for lounging; with small ponds and (eventually) small forests of big old trees. A place of respite from the crowded, noisy and madding city. Most other cities I’ve been to in Asia have at least some parks. Bangkok is extremely short on park space, probably worse than Phnom Penh considering its vast population, but at least it has Lumpini Park. Rangoon, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh all have large green parks. All Chinese cities have parks though they too devote only a small percentage of their space to greenery and charge people to enter them, but at least they have one or two places where people can seek out peace, tranquility and the sweet smell of greenery.
What about Olympic Stadium? Also not a park, though it does have some attributes of them, notably playing fields for football and other sports. Some years ago when teaching at Norton U. while pointing out the dearth of public space in the capital I asked where people could go to play football. Olympic Stadium, some replied. Where else? I asked. Outside the city was the answer. However, as far as I know there are no parks outside the city center so they were probably referring to vacant lots temporarily commandeered for the purpose and as we know vacant lots tend not to stay that way in a growing urban area.
Worse still, every year or so space on the periphery of the stadium has been or currently is being converted to commercial uses. In the latest crime against public space a large area of wetlands on the eastern and northern borders of the stadium is now being filled in and developed. The wetlands were placed there to absorb pretty much all the rain that fell in the entire complex. Now much of that will head straight for the city’s overloaded drainage system. That area could’ve been developed as a cool, green, watery park space, it was even big enough to allow for boating. Instead the city will get more department stores, shophouses, high-rises and the percentage of the city devoted to park or green space has been further diminished.
Unfortunately, the whittling away of that space has nowhere reached its end if the wishes of an important developer are to come to fruition. He was quoted in the Daily saying the area was ‘too crowded’ to have a stadium/recreation site there and it should be moved to a location outside the center city. So having the area developed in high-density commercial and residential uses will make it less crowded? Obviously not, though we know what he meant to convey; that the area is too valuable to be used for recreation and sports, activities which merely enhance the lives of the city’s inhabitants, but don’t allow for making big bucks. And instead of having a centrally located venue for sporting events, the majority of people would have to go long distances to participate, which further increases traffic congestion.
 In every case, except the aforementioned park strips, the city seems hell bent on converting every possible recreation space to commercial uses. Only a decade or so ago there were several large lakes that would’ve been ideal recreation sites. Today all are gone. In contrast, in the American city of Minneapolis, which is a small part of its metropolitan area and has less than 500,000 people, there are 26 lakes, half dozen of which are the size of the former Boeng Kak lake and all have public access. Some of the larger ones have swimming beaches and are enjoyed for windsurfing, kayaking and rowboating. Back in the sixties before Cambodia’s troubles began Boeng Kak lake was used for boating - one of the King father’s movies (he made a lot of them) showed boaters happily enjoying the lake.
Boeng Kak, the last of the city’s lakes has been filled in. To me, that was practically a crime against humanity let alone a transgression against the people of Phnom Penh, so I was shocked to hear a Khmer-American who spent decades in the US approve of filling in the lake. His reasoning was that it was polluted and ugly and surrounded by squatters. Why not just clean it up: You don’t abandon your house when it’s dirty, you clean it up. Another friend checking out an expat blog was equally surprised to see most people on the blog thinking of the loss of the lake as a good thing. Unbelievable.
Urban lakes are more than just great potential recreation sites, they also absorb excess rainwater, cool the city down and are magnets for development. Think of Central Park in New York. If you look at an aerial view of upper Manhattan where the park is, it’s clear that many of the largest (and most valuable) buildings are those facing the park. In an extremely dense city like New York, there is a great premium to living near green space and so the land there is much more valuable than land just a hundred meters away. Back in the 19th century when planners were laying out Manhattan they looked at the map they had devised which showed the entire island covered with streets and realized that that was really not good enough and so placed the park there. That was one of the best decisions ever made for New York City because it would’ve been intolerably crowded and oppressive without the park at its center.
Here is an alternative scenario for the development of BK lake, which in some ways is still possible though it would no longer benefit the 4000 families who’ve already been displaced. Instead of filling in the whole lake, they could’ve filled a 100 to 200 meter wide strip all the way around the lake that would become a park. On the outer edge of the green strip next to the squatters and others who did own their properties, there’d be peripheral road. That would’ve left about 3/4 of the lake intact. The property outside the road facing the park would become very valuable and within a few years developers would come in and fill it up with higher value buildings. To sum up: Had that plan been the one pursued, the people living on the periphery of the lake would’ve been richly compensated for their land and the change would’ve happened naturally and gradually; brand new better class neighborhoods would be developed around the lake and the city would have a great new park and a cleaned up lake for the pleasure of large numbers of citizens.
What we got instead was protests, unrest and widespread dissatisfaction and a lake that’s completely filled in when the developer had agreed to leave a 10 hectare lake (out of an original 110 hectares) in the center. Where does progress at the lake stand now? Work started there in the middle of last year but halted in August. The Chinese have lots of money but the company financing the development evidently is having second thoughts about pouring billions of dollars into the project. Several very large projects in PP were halted a few years back when potential buyers dried up. There just aren’t enough rich local bureaucrats/ politicians and interested well-heeled foreigners to fill up all the giant middle to upper class projects planned for the city.
It’s not good karma to wish bad luck on others - schadenfreude - but in this case I’ll take my chances… I hope the CPP senator and his Chinese partner who cooked up this rotten scheme sink financially like a stone in quicksand. Meanwhile, as far as filling in the lake is concerned; easy come, easy go, though admittedly it’ll take a lot more work removing the sand than it did to put it there. On the other hand, construction sand is in high demand so they’ll make back a little of their investment by removing and selling it. They’ve got to at least remove 10 hectares to create the lake that was promised.
There’s one other very large area previously designated as park space that’s being developed, the 48 hectares at the tip of the Chroy Changvar peninsula, which is directly across the river at Street 178. A fantastic place for a public park is being turned into a hotel/convention center with lots of other development thrown in. The people will get a nice riverside promenade out of it, but still, compared to a large park, that’s nowhere.
Boeng Kak is an empty canvas, anything is still possible there. Not so with Chroy Changvar peninsula since very large, multi-story buildings don’t often revert to park space. Still, that large building takes up only a small part of the total area so all is not lost… at least in theory. The only factor that can change the likely outcome is the larger economic picture. I hate to wish for economic problems that would slow Cambodia’s growth, since the country still desperately needs expansion to bring large numbers of people out of poverty. However, it can be argued that no growth at all is sometimes better than a short term boost from destructive growth which then leaves a long term legacy of ugliness and awfulness. So once again here’s hoping another giant project designed for the elite but created by usurping space meant for the enjoyment of all is halted before all is lost.
Finally, regardless of the damage done or being done, the city should be looking towards the future. A case in point. Back in the late 1940’s the City of Portland, Oregon had the foresight to create Forest Park, a ten square mile - 25 square kilometer - forested mountain ridge that begins only about three miles - five kilometers - from downtown. It wasn’t much to look at then because most of it had been logged in the previous few decades. Today, 65 years later, and being Oregon where trees grow fast and big, it is now beautiful both from a distance and close up when hiking it’s many miles of forested trails. You can still hear sounds of the city from the park and see it occasionally where the trees aren’t so thick, but you feel you’re in another world that could be hundreds of miles from the madding crowds. Similarly it was great foresight on the part of New York City’s planners 150 years ago that created Central Park.
There’ve got to be many very pretty spots on the outskirts of the city that’re crying out to be made into park space. The process of identifying and designating potential park sites needs to happen now before the land becomes too valuable. Getting to the city’s periphery to enjoy a peaceful picnic in the park might take a lengthy moto or tuk-tuk ride from the city center but those parks would still be resources that would be heavily used and deeply appreciated by the citizenry. Is the entire and recently expanded area of Phnom Penh going to be developed without a thought to creating additional green space? That’s what it looks like now but it would be a terrible mistake and an awful legacy for today’s leaders to leave for posterity. They may have the best interests of the people at heart, but the reality will be far different.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


It’s too bad Cambodia has been caught up in conservative, mostly US-fueled, drug-war fervor since it’s easily the most tolerant, laid back society in Asia. It was only 20 years ago, before UNTAC came in to conduct Cambodia’s first post-KR elections and coincidentally tell the country it had to crack down on drugs, that you could buy a shopping bag of ganja at Russian Market in Phnom Penh for about a dollar. In talking to locals about cannabis who remember the times before prohibition, I’ve heard comments like, We used to smoke it when we couldn’t afford tobacco, or We used it to flavor our soup.
Back then I was able to toke up in almost all the bars I frequented in the capital. The police hardly ever came out at night and nobody ever seemed to care, though some people were definitely turned off by the sweet smell of pot smoke. That all changed a few years back when the police paid a visit to all the bars and told them that the evil weed would no longer be tolerated. Still, though you can get busted today for pot possession, though probably not for small amounts, it’s somehow okay to spike your pizzas with the stuff. We’ve even got our first happy pizza restaurant in Kampot - Happy Dreamily Pizza.
Use of recreational drugs is best left to individual choice. Everybody has a right, or should have the right, to choose their own poison. There’s no way to stop people from doing what they want in a free country, even just a nominally free place like Cambodia. Moreover, education works as well or better than prohibition in curtailing drug use. In a class I taught in a local university some nine years ago I led a discussion of drugs. The general attitude of the students was that drug dealers should be executed. They didn’t need threats of prosecution to keep them from using drugs, they were already fanatically against them, their education and upbringing was enough.
The only thing you accomplish by prohibition is to raise prices to very high levels and thus draw in criminal involvement and the violence that often goes with any trade in contraband.
In Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam drug dealers are killed. One of Taksin Shinawatra’s claims to fame when he first took office was his ordering Thai police to summarily execute lots of drug dealers and 2500 people were offed in short order. I had a conversation at that time with a Thai based expat visiting Cambodia. He was all in favor of that murderous rampage, talking about how bad yaba was, until I pointed out that without giving people the opportunity to defend themselves it was likely that at least 5% to 10% of that 2500 were guilty of only minor crimes or were innocent but had gotten their names on the hit list because someone in the police department didn’t like them.
In Singapore possession of as little as 15 grams of heroin or 200 grams of ganja is a mandatory death sentence. Not long ago a Singaporean couple returning from a trip to Australia were drug tested and wound up spending two years in the brink for smoking pot on their vacation; who knows, it could’ve been only a puff or two. Ganja, being oil based stays in your system for about 30 days. The hard drugs, on the other hand, are all water based so shoot up heroin, cocaine or meth on Friday night and you’re clean Monday morning when you get to work. Today every corporate job in America requires drug testing and the vast majority of positives are from pot.
The fundamental problem with state murder of people for small amounts of drugs is that drug laws are based on cultural bias and change with the times. It wasn’t that long ago  historically speaking - 1920 till 1933 - that marijuana was legal in America while alcohol was prohibited. There’d never be a disagreement on the legality of murder, robbery, extortion and such, but it takes a staggering amount of arrogance and hubris for Singapore and many other countries to kill someone over marijuana when it’s easily available and practically legal in other places in the world.
If you want to drink yourself to death in Singapore, or merely imbibe till it destroys your family life, you’re perfectly welcome to it, though it’ll cost a bit since taxes there are really high. When backers of drug prohibition are asked why alcohol is legal and ganja is not, though by any scientific, existential, non-emotional standard alcohol is much worse, they often respond by saying, We already have one bad drug, we don’t need another. They should be honest and finish their statement by saying; besides I like a cold beer on a hot afternoon, I like a glass of wine after dinner, I like a shot of brandy before hitting the sack. If I like it, it’s okay, if I don’t, you go to jail or get offed.
Now that squeaky-clean Singapore is promoting casino gambling (Have you noticed they don’t call it gambling anymore, it’s now gaming. You know, it’s just a game, just for fun.) you can blow your life savings and your family’s future, but that’s okay because it brings tourism and makes lots of money for the state.
If you want to stuff your face to the point where you can barely walk and your life has been shortened by decades, all assisted by constant TV advertising encouraging you to do just that, then no problem, knock yourself out, it’s your life, after all. But if you take one puff of the evil weed, you’re a scourge to society and must pay dearly for your dastardly, miscreant behavior.
The other point prohibitionists like to make, which is not born out by the statistics is that a lot more people will do drugs if they are legal or more easily obtainable. Holland provides the best example. Fewer young people smoke pot there where it’s virtually legal, than in America where nearly a million people are languishing in prison over non-violent marijuana related offenses.
Portugal also provides a good example since in 2001 all drugs, not just cannabis, were decriminalized. Portugal now has some of the lowest percentages of drug use in Europe, when for instance it once had the highest percentage of heroin users. Today, a smaller percentage of people in the country have an experience with ganja than those who’ve used cocaine in America. Ten percent have tried cannabis there compared to nearly 40% in America.
Around 40 years ago Tricky Dick Nixon was shown a government report that suggested ganja should be decriminalized since its effects were essentially benign. Instead he did the opposite and began America’s War on Drugs. He could clearly see that the majority of people opposed to the Vietnam war were tokers so he rightly figured he could use drug laws to suppress the anti-war movement.
His ‘War’ has done nothing to suppress drug use, but has served to disrupt and/or destroy millions of people’s lives and helped to create a massive industrial prison system. Now that many of America’s prisons are corporate owned, there’s profit to be made from incarcerating lots of non conformists as well as common criminals.
Changes, though are afoot. Bolivians have elected a former coca farmer as president, and Latin American countries as a whole are rethinking the ‘Drug War’ military response to what is essentially a public health problem. They suffer far more from drug war mania than the US, the world’s biggest user country. The drug cartels have millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal to bribe and/or threaten police and public officials. It is an especially difficult situation for smaller countries but even Mexico, a large middle income country has seen 50,000 drug war related deaths since the current president started his ‘crackdown’ on the drug trade six years ago. The cartels have a gruesome cant; in the latest example nearly fifty headless, handless, footless bodies - hard to identify that way - were dumped in a prominent urban place. As a result the Latin’s feel they have to find a different path.
Changes are also afoot in the US. Polls in some states are showing majorities in favor of legalizing and regulating cannabis. When you subtract the cost of apprehending, adjudicating and incarcerating large numbers of pot users from public budgets and then add the tax take from legalizing it, it should be a no brainer; still, regressive, narrow-minded, idiocy dies hard. The movement to decriminalize pot began in 1973 in Oregon, when possession of less than an ounce - 28 grams - was turned into a violation similar to a traffic ticket with a $50 fine. About 16 states have since followed suit.
About the same number now permit medical marijuana. In Oregon, one of the first states to allow it, the change was propelled by the experience of a conservative constituent of a conservative Republican rural state legislator. This woman had suffered for a long time from glaucoma. She was scheduled for an operation on a Monday, but having heard of pot’s healing qualities thought it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. She started smoking on Friday evening, kept it up all weekend and went into the hospital for a pre-op checkup on Monday. The doctor looked at her eyes and proclaimed that they were fine and she needed no operation. After she related her experience to her state legislator, he became an advocate and the die was cast. It isn’t a miracle cure for all types of glaucoma, but a couple of joints in place of an eye operation… also a no brainer.
Just recently - mid-May 2012 - a New York judge wrote an op-ed in the New York Times urging the state legislature to legalize medical marijuana. He’d been undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and try as he might to find a legal drug to combat the nausea and lack of appetite that goes with chemo treatment, nothing but smoking pot worked. He broke the law in order to receive proper treatment, this doubtless after putting lots of people away for marijuana related offenses. Meanwhile the federal government has classified pot as a class A drug with no medical uses and Obama’s justice department has been going after medical marijuana dispensaries, which are legal under state law, with a vengeance. This from a president who admitted smoking, and inhaling, as a youth… effing hypocrite.
The one good aspect of prohibiting pot is the healthy distrust of government it engenders. With all the dire warnings you’ve been taught about the descent into perdition that comes with the first puff, you’re expecting far more impact than pot delivers. Even if you don’t like the feeling and have no intention of smoking again, the one thing you come away from the experience with it is that it’s essentially harmless and all that you’ve been told about it by the establishment is bullshit and hype.
A major lie foisted on the public by the anti-drug establishment is that smoking pot is dangerous to your health, equal to tobacco. While smoking anything can cause irritation, coughing and other respiratory problems, there’s nothing in ganja smoke that can develop into cancer or other diseases. Back in the 80’s I knew a guy who was doing marijuana research. They had gathered together a group of guys, gave them as much pot as they wanted and told them to smoke themselves out. After a couple of months they became afraid and called off the study because the subjects’ respiratory systems were becoming congested with cannabis tars. Two months later they were completely clean with no permanent damage. That’s in contrast to tobacco which permanently scars the small passages, the cilia, in the lungs.
Also, it’s not possible to OD on pot. According to America’s Drug Enforcement Administration you would have to smoke about 700 kilos in 15 minutes to OD… even my son who’s a legendary wake and baker can’t do that.
What about the hard drugs: heroin, cocaine, meth? For sure you can OD on them, but that’s partly a result of prohibition, since you never know the potency of what you’re getting on the street. All three will make you look wrinkled, washed out and old before your time if you let them control your life. At the same time you could use all three and continue to carry on a reasonably normal life if prohibition didn’t make them so expensive you were required you to steal and rob to get your fix. If you have a life, feel good about yourself, you can experiment without ever becoming addicted.
A relative who’s never been part of the hip scene asked me why people do heroin. The answer is simple: No matter how stressed, depressed, unhappy or sick you are in mind and/or body; no matter that you consider yourself a worthless turd and have no hope for a better future, when you shoot up you’re on top of the world. Nothing can hurt you or phase you. Morphine which has one tenth the potency of heroin, is one of the best medicinal painkillers because no matter how banged up or diseased you are, with sufficient morphine in your system you can handle any contingency.
A guy I met traveling related an experience he’d had with opium, which is one tenth the potency of morphine. Before he and a friend settled in to smoke in comfortable chairs he’d put an Eagles tape on his cassette player. Unfortunately, it was on continuous loop so they wound up having to listen to the whole album 7 or 8 times before either one could bring himself to rise up and change the tape. The Eagles!! You just feel sooo mellow and relaxed, nothing can bother you. With all the crazy shit happening in the world and the grave hardship so many people face in their daily lives, why not let them enjoy a little escape sometimes? Could it be worse than alcohol? At least guys wouldn’t be beating their wives around when on opium.
Cocaine, meth, whatever, nothing works better or causes less harm to society than education about drugs and dealing with each of them truthfully and intelligently. Cambodia, however, pushed by the international community is going at the problem in a harsh and unforgiving manner. Recently three teenage girls caught with 6 yaba pills between them were each given two years behind bars. Is that fair, does it make sense?
Cambodia is a relaxed and easygoing place, that’s one of the things we expats like most about the place. Entertainment is one of the country’s best bets for economic growth. Why not take a ‘happy-pizza’ attitude towards life and let people be themselves, make their own decisions and choose their own poison. It’s the adult way to do things.
I’m 70 years old. Is somebody going to tell me what’s good for me and what’s bad for me, what I’m supposed to like and what I’m not supposed to like?
Stan Kahn