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.