Sunday, December 1, 2013
After being so long in the tropics, you just naturally feel superior about enjoying our endless summer, but I was reminded back in the states that a lot of people can’t take the heat.
But first a final note on beer available back in Oregon and a sort-of apology for my first beer article. I forgot to mention a beer I tried named Swill. On the label it says, Beer guy, don’t take yourself so seriously. It was a lager flavored with citrus and, well, I have to tell you it lived up to its name, at least to my taste. I wouldn’t buy it again, but I’m sure there are a lot of people like myself who have to try it at least once, so I expect they’ll do alright.
Thinking back on my first article on beer titled, They Don’t Like Good Beer, I have to admit that was pretty arrogant of me. A friend characterized my attitude as harsh or maybe brutal was how he put it. I did try to make clear that there’s no accounting for taste and everybody is different. I mean, you can’t help it if you like swill. It’s just one of those things. Moreover, being a geezer means I have special privileges and can get away with saying and doing things not allowed for you young’uns. We old farts have lots of space to be as ornery, opinionated and cantankerous as we wish. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, lets move on.
The night before I left Oregon the temperature got down to 40ºF – -4ºC – quite cool for October 9. Except for a few days in mid-September when it was hot and a few more near the end of my trip when it was just warm enough to be friendly, I felt chilled most the time. Still, for a lot of people cold is far preferred over hot. A friend, who said her body temperature was naturally high, told me she got positively ill when the temperature reached up into the 80s – above 27ºC. I told her she could only visit Cambodia at night in December and January. When it got above 90F – 32C – almost everybody was complaining... while I could finally relax. At least I didn’t feel cold. Becoming old and decrepit is also a factor, it just gets harder to deal with the cold as you age; hot is simply a lot easier for us. If it’s really baking you can hit the hammock and make yourself a breeze. Other people here have to have their air-con but still prefer here to coldness. Personally, I don’t care about the heat, I continue on as I would otherwise; I won’t purposely choose to ride my bike or take a walk in the hot mid-day sun, but I also won’t think twice if it needs to be.
Before I go on I need to put in a plug for Fahrenheit, though I know it’s a totally lost cause – only the US and four other small countries around the Caribbean still use it. In all respects other than ambient temperature, the metric system is the only way to go. Sadly, in doing research for this article I was disabused of a notion about Fahrenheit that I’d maintained all my life. Until Wikipedia straightened me out, I was convinced that old man Fahrenheit, who lived in southern Germany, measured the temperature at his home for 5 years and placed the lowest temperature at zero (-18ºC) and the highest at one hundred (38C). It sounded totally plausible but turned out to be completely wrong.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was Dutch. He placed 0º at the freezing point of brine and 100º was body temperature. After some minor fiddling around to match up freezing at 32º and boiling at 212º, body temperature turned out to be 98.6º F. I still think in inches, etc., but only because I’m used to it, not because it makes sense, but I think Fahrenheit is a better scale for everyday temperatures. Zero to 100 makes more sense than -18 to +38 and being a bigger scale allows for more accuracy. 28C could be 81, 82, or 83F since temperatures are rarely quoted in decimals. And if you say 70sF you know it’s cool to warm; whereas if you say 20sC you’d be talking about cool to hot. You’d have to qualify it by saying low 20s, etc. At any rate, here’s a simple conversion: 28C is 82F, 35C is 95F. And don’t mind me if I can’t help thinking in Fahrenheit, I’m just set in my ways.
Back on track, I can’t imagine anyone actually saying they like it hot, especially hot and humid. That includes everyone who’s here to escape the cold. We accept it and deal with it but it isn’t something we love. There may be one exception. Some years ago in Portland I was selling recycled metal at a scrap yard on a hot summer day over 90. One of the funky guys working there was wearing a padded vest so I couldn’t resist asking him why. He said he had a back problem and the only time it didn’t hurt was when he kept it hot. Otherwise, it’s really just a trade-off. I’ll accept the unpleasant hot so I don’t have to deal with the jittery, shivery cold. Besides, the times when it’s almost insufferably torrid here with sweat running out of every pore when you’re not even moving are balanced by the times when it’s a perfect balmy 80 or 82 degrees or so. Add a coolish breeze coming off the river here in Kampot and, well it just doesn’t get any better.
Portland’s climate also has its good points. It doesn’t freeze very often, so you rarely have to bundle up. Summer’s great with only a few really hot days and hardly any rain and except for those few hot days it feels fresh, bright and clean. For that you have to deal with six months of cool, dark, cloudy, misty, rainy, cabin-fever winter. In a cold climate, you generally keep your house cool to minimize the contrast to the outside and to save money and energy. As a result you (I) almost always feel a little chilled and edgy, without being able to fully relax.
In my earlier days I sought out the cold. At 18 I left my family in LA (we had just moved there a year or so earlier from Ohio) and migrated to New York. It seemed that the only thing people in California could talk about was how great it was to live in a warm climate, as if that was the only valid reason for choosing a place to live. It felt so vacuous and intellectually stultifying, especially when added to being in pastel fifteen-suburbs-in-search-of-a-city Los Angeles.
Cold is challenging, it’s brisk, fresh and energizing and if you’re prepared for it, no big deal. I spent years working outdoors in Portland. Even if it’s only 5 to 10C (40 to 50F) you don’t feel it if you’re working and staying active. On this last trip I was out on a day when a big storm came through. It was blustery, sideways-rainy and cold; altogether miserable is the only way to describe it. But also no big deal, if that’s what you’re into. Most people would hide away indoors on such a day, but I also saw people out riding bikes. I walked about 100 meters in the heavy (for Portland) rain and barely felt wet compared to being out in a Kampot downpour for about 5 seconds. At the Oregon coast, those stormy days carry a real punch: it rains a lot more and the winds routinely get up to 70mph – 110kph. It’s great fun…but only for a short time until you are thoroughly soaked and chilled.
Cold, perforce brings innovation and requires energy. There are lots of homeless people in LA where it’s almost always warm and quite a few in Portland where it’s uncomfortable for much of the year but not really cold, but in Saskatoon or Fairbanks, where the temperature easily gets down to -40 (F and C meet at -40) there is no such thing as being homeless, at least not in the winter.
In a cold climate, you must have heat, survival depends on it. In a hot climate you don’t have to have air-conditioning: You’ll certainly be uncomfortable, but you can live without it. You don’t even need four walls, just a roof for the rain and sun and something to keep the wind from howling through.
The following story illustrates the attitudes of some, possibly many rural Cambodians and maybe countryside people in other tropical countries. A do-gooder type set up a little factory in a small village with the idea of providing steady employment and paying the villagers well. He trained them in the work and was going to improve their lives. Everything went well in the beginning, he paid their first salaries, he was proud of himself. But the next day nobody showed up for work. When asked why they didn’t go to work they said that he paid so well, they had enough money to last for a while and that they’d return when they ran out of money.
I’m not sure where I remember that story from; it could well be a myth, but it does reflect an attitude that’s possible in a tropical place where life is naturally easy. Easy in the sense that it doesn’t take a lot to survive, not that rural people don’t have it hard in many other ways. The number of rural Cambodians who spend long hours working in garment factories belies the truth of that story to some extent, but it’s still a plausible scenario. There are, of course, lots of hardworking Cambodians, including many who out in the hot sun, but it’s still somehow easier than it would be to do the same work in freezing conditions.
In contrast, here’s a story from my time living in a hippie commune in southern Oregon. We lived in the mountains in homemade houses. It’s rarely very cold there because it’s relatively close to the Pacific Ocean so has a marine climate. As a result, many houses were not very tightly constructed, you know, plenty of air spaces through the siding and of course no insulation. One fellow spent a lot of time bragging about how great it was to have fresh air coming through to the inside. Besides, he would say, if it’s a little cool inside you can always hang out by the wood stove. Then one of those rare frigid air systems from the interior came barreling through with temperatures of 15F (-9C) and pushing the marine air out to the ocean. You never saw anybody work so diligently and speedily plugging all those fresh air holes… even though the frigid air was only going to last a few days.
Cold demands action while hot is conducive to inaction. Cold puts you on your toes while hot sets you flat on your back or in that idyllic hammock. Cold sets your teeth on edge and numbs your toes, heat brings sweat to your eyes and nose and clothes.
When I finally left New York for good, after bouncing back and forth between there and LA for ten years, I set off for northern California where the hippie commune, back-to-the-land movement was centered, besides I had friends there. I soon discovered that it was too expensive and close to the big city to allow for a truly self-reliant country lifestyle, so I moved further north and away from the city in stages till I landed in southern Oregon. Each stage was an improvement but still not enough for me; I wanted something colder, hardier and more remote where urban influences had less sway and masses of people couldn’t descend on you and hang out forever because the climate was so mild. You can’t lollygag when it’s really cold, you’ve got to get with the program.
From Oregon I made about a dozen exploratory forays out to the cold interior Pacific Northwest, mostly on my thumb. Probably half to two-thirds of the 70,000 miles of hitching I did from 1968 to 1980 was for the purpose of finding that perfect cold-country place. I was out in all weather, including in very cold places, and without money since I was a bona fide penniless hippie and that was the only way I could go. For all that, I never found my frigid fantasy homesite and was fated to live in cool, rainy Oregon for the next 22 years. As it happens, it was the perfect place for me for a lot of reasons and another lesson in going with the flow, which is not so easy when you’re young and trying to make your place in the world. What you really want may not be what you cosmically need and the more you fight against reality the less likely you are to find happiness.
And now for twelve years I’ve been here in forever sweaty Cambodia where the temperature rarely goes below 20C – 68F. There’s a time for everything, but I sure hope that doesn’t include returning to the ‘cold’, even if it’s only ‘cool’ Oregon.
My latest book, A Hitchhiker’s Tao, is based on my extensive thumbing experience and a large part is focused on my cold quest. It’s available only as an ebook and most easily purchased from smashwords.com… Look for Stan Kahn.
Friday, November 1, 2013
Back to Sweatland and More
What a welcome relief it was to step off the plane in Phnom Penh, after spending five weeks in a naturally cool place that was even cooler than normal and SWEAT. Oozing out all over, it was. The cold wasn’t all that bad, or wouldn’t be if one actually liked it, but in my waning years, not my cup of tea. That however is a story for another article…
First Portland, whose slogan lately, cooked up by a longtime, old-line record store is, Keep Portland Weird. It’s all over town in bumper stickers, etc. For instance, many bus riders say thank you to the driver as they exit. Weird huh? I might’ve chosen another word, like quirky or eccentric or unusual or trippy or odd or peculiar, but it wasn’t my idea so weird will have to do.
Certainly, if I had to live anywhere in the US, it would have to be Stumptown, so named because when the city was first developed in the 1850s the giant conifer trees that blanketed the area were easy enough to cut down (relatively speaking) but the huge stumps leftover were much more difficult to uproot so were left in the ground to naturally erode away, a process which took decades.
In the five years I was gone, two important streets were renamed. One for Caesar Chavez, fighter for farmworkers’ rights and the other for Rosa Parks, who famously refused to move to the back of a segregated bus in Alabama in the 1960’s. Portland never had the racial problems of many American cities for two basic reasons. One is that its minority population has always been so low – lowest proportion of any major American city, now about 20% – that white people never saw blacks as a threat. Even thirty years ago when the city had a definable ghetto there was always a large proportion of whites living there. Today, it’s been so upgraded and gentrified and peppered with cool, hip new shops and restaurants, it hardly qualifies as a ghetto, though there still are African-Americans living there. Secondly, there’s always been a sector of the population that’s fiercely progressive, liberal, integrationist. Height of ironies, they invaded the ghetto to the point where minorities can hardly afford to live there anymore.
Being in Oregon also makes a difference. It was the first state to decriminalize marijuana in 1973. Assisted suicide was approved by the voters about 15 years ago… the only place in the world outside of Switzerland to enable it, though I believe some other countries are now coming on line. Oregon’s entire coast up to the vegetation line is public - compared to most of America where coastal property owners can build fences up to the high tide line – and there are 600 access points in 300 miles of coastline. In California, which has a spectacular coastline, you can sometimes drive 50 miles before finding a place to access it. Some years ago a group of Californians bought a remote oceanside Oregon property with the intention of bringing in boats loaded with weed. Unfortunately (for them and their plans) they had no idea about how things worked in Oregon so they built fences out to the high water line. Too bad… it looked highly suspicious to the locals and they got busted with the first shipment.
Portland doesn’t look all that different from the average mid-sized American city with some exceptions. It looks better than most because it’s so well taken care of which includes large areas of preserved older housing; it has all kinds of light rail trains and streetcars roaming around its vibrant central city; there’s lots of street sculpture strewn around and it’s growing in density where most American cities its size are spreading far and wide in typical suburban sprawl. It’s metro population is about 1.7 million, around the same size as Phnom Penh. It covers two or three times the area of PP but only half the area of other American cities of equivalent population.
Dense or otherwise, after my week on public transportation hobnobbing with the (un)usual characters, I spent a lot of time driving. Having wheels is very convenient, but other than a leisurely drive on a bucolic country highway, driving is a giant bore and hassle and mental frazzler. At least in the US it makes more sense: stay in your lane, keep a safe distance, watch for brake lights and you can zone out with your mind on some other planet. At first, when a car would come up to an intersection with me driving along a larger road I’d get a Cambo-based reflex half expecting the other car to dart in front of me. It took a few days to get that out of my system.
Traffic was horrendous at peak hours, partly because Portlanders have absolutely refused to allow any new freeways to be built or roads expanded and over the years car lanes have been reduced while bike lanes have increased. It’s what I call the ‘Let them stew’ theory of traffic management. If you make it hard enough for drivers, a lot of them will switch to alternatives; meanwhile you haven’t spent a ton of money and used a lot of valuable land to increase roadways.
Needless to say driving there is not at all like in Cambo where you have people on all manner of vehicles coming at you from all directions and nobody has actually stopped at a stop sign since the birth of the country, though some will actually look and others even slow down. In my car here I feel like a big fish with lots of little fish swarming around me and I try mightily to not be distracted because in a split second of letting my eyes wander some teenage kid will cut right in front with centimeters to spare and you know: KABOOM. Another big difference is that hardly anybody gets bent out of shape here for driving transgressions… even if you crash a red light and force others to stop for you. Try some of those tricks anywhere in the States, and even in Oregon and you’ve potentially got a livid road-rager to deal with.
Another of Oregon’s unique traits is its landmark land use law, passed in 1973 and still the only one of its kind in the country. It required that every city have a line drawn around it – an urban growth boundary - encompassing the already urbanized area. Until a city’s population grows to the point where additional land needs to be included inside the line it is nearly impossible to build urban type developments outside of it. It took 25 years of growth before the Portland metro area needed to expand the line and that boundary is now so clear you know immediately when you’ve crossed it. Urban to rural, like night into day. That saves valuable farmland and makes cities more efficient.
The contrast to Cambodia is stark; here you can build anything anywhere… as long as you don’t discomfort a bong tum – big man – in the process. That’s what happened at Martini Pub’s second location. Martini’s is a longtime local nightclub institution which has a large outdoor setting. A VIP living nearby didn’t like the noise and they were forced to move. The only restriction here is how close you can build to a public road. One of the reasons why we expats like living here is the lack of rules and restrictions, still, it’s not a great idea, for instance, to have noisy factories juxtaposed next to where people live. Included in the need for change is the way large factories are being built in the countryside in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, it seems like zoning and land use laws for Cambodia are far in the future. I believe there are building codes of some sort for Phnom Penh, but most people don’t bother to get permits so it wouldn’t matter much. A couple years back it was noted that less than half of builders got permits, though most of the larger projects were permitted.
America is the land of giant refrigerators and the immense supermarkets used to stock them. Shopping in one of those double-football-field sized stores is so distasteful, disagreeable, even demoralizing, you can’t help but want to stock up to avoid having to go back too soon. I tried to avoid them, but when it was necessary, I’d spend half an hour wandering around in abject frustration trying to find what I was looking for. I’ve never taken kindly to supermarkets. When I first starting getting high, you couldn’t coax me to go into one if you tried all day. Rather, you’d have to drag me in kicking and screaming. Just being in the parking lot gave me the willies.
And why does anyone need a thousand different breakfast cereals to choose from? Here in Cambodia we get whatever the wholesalers can pick up cheap and that means a constantly changing stock and since it includes products from a wide array of countries – New Zealand, Argentina, Germany, France and Egypt as well as the US – we actually have a greater choice; in particular when it comes to GMO free ones.
The one exception I’ll make to the choice thing is beer, there can never be too many available. As it happened the local store nearest where I stayed in a middle class part of town, which originally sold mostly food is now mostly beer and wine. They have a mind-boggling variety of brews so I was curious (and wanted to know for this article) about the number and asked the clerk how many different beers they sold. ‘Too many to count’, he responded at first so I pressed him, ‘500?’. ‘Oh no’, he says, ‘We have more than 500 domestic beers and maybe 1000 imports’. It was harvest time so they had at least a dozen pumpkin flavored beers and others spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. I spent way too much money drinking quality brews knowing I’d be returning to the land of dearth of choices. Upon returning, however, it seems like our low-cost beers are pretty good in comparison to America’s and with brewpubs and microbreweries opening up, we may yet become a beer-lover’s paradise, though maybe not in my lifetime.
One of the best events I enjoyed while in Portland was the swiftlet bird show in Swift Park. It is named for a small corner of a park surrounding an elementary school in Portland and provides a great bird show. Starting about thirty years ago vast numbers of swiftlets – very small birds who spend almost all their time in the air - have turned the school’s big chimney into a stopping-off point in their migration from the Pacific Northwest to Central and South America. They roost by clinging to the inside of the chimney.
The school sits in a hilly part of town so in the process of making a flat place for the building and surrounding playing fields there’s a steep hillside in back of the school which, when you’re sitting there, places you at about eyelevel with the top of the chimney. Every afternoon starting at the end of August and lasting for about 5 or 6 weeks, somewhere between 5000 and 30,000 birds start gathering there an hour or so before nightfall in a swirling mass that looks like a funnel cloud. Meanwhile at least a thousand people bringing blankets and picnic food gather to watch the show. If it starts to get cold before the end of the migration and the time when the school can fire up the furnace, the kids just wear extra clothes and tough it out for the duration.
As part of the show there’s often a falcon or hawk or two who show up, causing much temporary dispersion and consternation to the swifts, as they pick off a little bird for supper. That, as you can imagine, really gets the crowd exercised. There’re plenty of swifts to go around, they’re in no danger whatever. The climax of the show is when they begin diving en masse into the chimney right about sunset. Wow, what a show.
As it happens swifts are no strangers to Kampot, though of course a completely different breed. Ours are called German’s swifts and are closely related to Edible-nest swifts which inhabit other parts of southeast Asia. All over town and out in the nearby countryside are specially constructed 3 to 4 story bird houses. They sometimes dress them up a bit with fake windows or porches. They play a continuous loop of bird sounds to lure the swiftlets, only changing the songs a bit around sunset. A friend who lived near one was driven half crazy by the unending chirping… he was a bit too sensitive.
Their nests are small semi-circular cups which they attach to the inside wall and are made up exclusively of their hardened saliva. For some strange reason they are prized by the Chinese who will pay $35 to $100 for a bowl of soup made out of them. Wholesale they bring somewhere between $2000 and $8000 per kilo, depending on the quality and color, and thus the reason why bird’s nest producers can afford to build multistory structures to house them. They are sprouting all over town. It’s one of our biggest industries.
I had a great time back in the States, especially after 5 years away, and really enjoyed seeing the kids and grandkids and friends of a lifetime. I also enjoyed seeing Portland changing and progressing, but 5 weeks seemed too long. Three would be plenty. I wouldn’t mind going back, but certainly not for at least a couple of years.
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Well they finally let me out, after five years in Cambodia interrupted by only one night in Ha Tien, Vietnam, the closest border town to Kampot, I’m experiencing the other world, the outside world; in this case: The Indispensable Country, The Exceptional Country, you know the one that gets to make up its own rules and show off its superior weaponry whenever it feels it might be compromised strategically or economically, which seems to happen with regularity. At any rate I’m back in the belly of the beast. It may no longer be my home, but having spent the first fifty years of my life there, it’s something that I’ll never to be able to shake off, besides the US having a lot of good points, in spite of everything.
Meanwhile, I’ve been totally relaxed and complacent in the funky laid-back little Eden of Kampot, to the effect that I’ve had no need or desire to go anywhere else. But I came into a little money from sale of a small piece of land and figured it was now or never since the land money wasn’t going to last all that long under any circumstances and I hadn’t seen my kids and grandkids and lifetime friends for what felt like a long time.
Bought my ticket in June for an early September flight from Phnom Penh to Portland, Oregon. The cheapest flight was on Korean Air - $1,230 – but it would’ve cost $250 more if I’d flown two weeks earlier in August. The trip – Phnom Penh to Seoul to Seattle to Portland – included a 12 hour layover in Seoul but I’ve got a friend there and the visa is free and it’s a relatively cheap ride into downtown Seoul - $4.50 - so I had to check it out and wander around town a bit.
I’d been there for a short time back in 1993. I’d spent the whole of ’92 traveling in Asia and didn’t want to go back home and was running out of money so I was expecting that work teaching English would save me from the dreaded return to America. I’d met lots of teachers on my travels and had pumped them for information with the conclusion that Taiwan and Korea were my best bets for work considering they paid $25 per hour as opposed to teaching in Bangkok which started at a measly $4 per hour. Japan was also a possibility, but it just seemed like a strange place to want to live. The Japanese I met traveling were cool enough but all were also ultimate quirky.
So I’m off to the Taiwan embassy since a visa in advance was required then and applied for a two-month visa, the longest term available. Went in for my interview and the fellow said, “Why you want two months? Taiwan small country, nothing to see.” How do you reply to that? He had sized me up and assumed, correctly, that was intending to work illegally, and refused a visa.
Okay, plan B is Korea, so I’m off, in January, to Seoul. Found a cheap place to stay in a kind of guest house where the rooms were heated from under the floor and there were shared kitchen facilities but they were outdoors, so hardly convenient when the temperature went down to 12°F – minus 13°C. Getting around on the subways was easy but finding a destination was a real bear: Buildings are numbered by whole block (all four sides) but there are no numbers on the buildings themselves, besides very few people spoke English back then. Finally found a school to apply to; couldn’t miss the big sign on the front of the building. The headmaster sized me up and assumed, correctly, that I didn’t know what I was talking about – I had had no experience - and asked me to come back the next day with a lesson plan.
Lesson plan? Well, I knew what the two words meant separately as well as put together, but to actually do one? I was clearly and totally out of my element, besides, I’d spent many hours trying to find thermal underwear to ward off the chill, to no avail whatever. I did get a chance to ride the train down to Pusan at the tip of the peninsula. It’s smaller, prettier, warmer and much preferred but it’s even harder to find work there. Korea back then was impressively formal: half the men on the train were wearing suits and ties… just for the ride. So after 10 days in the hermit nation – most homogeneous country on earth – I’m back to Bangkok. Called a number of an English school, said I needed work. Lady at the other end of the phone said great, I need a teacher, come tomorrow at 10am. No questions were asked but at a paltry $4 per hour they didn’t have a lot of options. Over the next 10 months I earned as much as $8 per hour, which still afforded a life of penury; however, that experience was just enough to give me the confidence when I returned eight years later to know I could find work.
At any rate, I found my way to central Seoul easily enough. The Airport express ends at Seoul Station, a nine level complexity accommodating all manner of transportation options. With the help of a local who saw I was completely flummoxed and a tourist map, which somehow disintegrated within an hour of use (not a great selling point for tourists) I found my way out and in the right direction for a little walk to my friend’s place not far from the transit hub. Hung out with her a bit, wandered around the nearby park for about an hour and headed back to the airport. Made my way back to Seoul Station and found a subway to Incheon, which happens to be the name of the airport. Except that Incheon is 15 miles across the water from the airport Incheon and way too far to swim, especially for someone who can barely make 15 meters before he begins to sink. Fortunately, I’d left myself plenty of time to get there so had no need to get stressed out.
The place is wired, with the highest penetration of broadband anywhere. At least 2/3rds of the people on the train were playing with their smartphones. (In fact, they shouldn’t be called telephones, because they really are small computers, which also can be used to make phone calls.) The center city is crisscrossed with giant boulevards, but in between are these personable, interesting little alleys. The Korean people have a distinctive look, very unlike the nearby ethnic groups. As I understand it, they are a combination of yellow and red races. As the reds were being pushed out of Asia by the ever expanding yellows and across the land bridge through the Bering Strait into the Americas, a remnant was left in Korea. It’s a very interesting place, certainly worth a 12 hour visit.
Okay, now I have a 6 hour layover in Seattle. Across from me in the waiting area a oldtimer a little further down the line than yours truly sits down and says to the middle-aged African guy (he was speaking his native language) who was sporting a kid’s backpack and telephone, “Don’t get old, it’s not worth it, it’s only trouble”. The African guy was either ignoring him or didn’t understand or hear him, but I couldn’t help responding that I was also old and didn’t think it was all that bad. He then recounted how his body was falling apart, everything was going wrong, he was spending a fortune trying to stay alive, he didn’t have any family and thought it might be time to die. I agreed, saying, if life is all pain and problems, then might as well move on.
He then went on to tell his story. He was fine until a year before when his kidneys and lots of other internal organs started failing… except he’d weighed 380 pounds – 175 kilos – even though he was only my height, 5’6” – about 168cm. Seems he’d had a stomach bypass fifteen years earlier. That allows you to eat as much as you want without gaining weight, since everything just passes through without being digested. He said he ate 90 pills a day, mostly supplements to make up for getting nothing from the food he ate. What got to me was the idea that he could think all was okay while being grossly overweight and eating mountains of pills everyday. The fact that he made it to 74 under those conditions is quite amazing. When you’re obese everything you do puts extra strain on your body, all of your joints and organs have a lot of extra work to do. Fat people in wheelchairs and electric scooters who can no longer get around on their own two feet is a common sight in America. Not everyone is fat, but the typical mountain of lard is nearly ubiquitous. (If you’re one of the lardasses referred to, forgive me, I mean no harm, everybody has their challenges, yours is just a lot more visible.)
So then I asked him how he felt about his life. He said that he’d had a full and rewarding life, had accomplished a lot and been very successful in business. All the more reason to wrap it up, I responded, knowing you hadn’t missed out or been insufficient or lacking in this life. If you’re going to go out, I suggested, do it with a smile; if you’re going to hang around, might as well try to make the best of it.
My mother tried to make it clear as her end was in view that she didn’t want heroic measures taken to keep her alive, she’d even made a video to that effect; still, when the time came, the doctors were unaware of her wishes and spent tens of thousands of dollars in the last couple of days in a futile and wasted effort. At the same time, millions of people die every year from lack of health insurance. Futility and Waste, along with Inequality and Unfairness, the hallmarks of America.
When I first get to Portland, it usually takes a few days to get some wheels together. In the meantime, I ride the buses and trains. I actually like public transportation; you are relieved of the stress of driving and get to witness a cross-section of America in your fellow passengers. The problem is that it takes god-awful long to go anywhere and you’ve got a curfew since transit is rare at night. So I have to have a car if I’m going to accomplish anything. The buses are full of characters; a couple of times early on I’d be waiting for a bus and I’d see a guy chattering away to himself a few feet away. A couple minutes later he’d stop by to talk. The first guy led off with how he had high blood pressure, but he really like salt, he wasn’t going to give up his salt. Well, why don’t you try using just a little, I suggested. He then pulled a package of sliced salami out of his pocket. Salami, as we know is half fat. What’s your cholesterol, I asked. Two hundred is average, he says, while his is 260. Wait… a… second… 200 is not average, it’s the limit of relative safety. Anything over that is asking for trouble.
Americans are hardly the only people who eat unconsciously, but the attitude here epitomizes self-destructive eating habits. A very large part of that is marketing. The root of all evil hews much closer to marketing than money itself. That is exemplified by a study done some time ago in which 3- to 5-year-old children were given McDonald’s burgers in a company wrapper and a plain wrapper. They were also give fries in the two wrappers. Three quarters thought the offerings in the corporate wrappers tasted better. Children are being taught to like trash. The children were also given baby carrots in both wrappers, which McDonalds doesn’t serve, to the same results. What if equal time on the airwaves was given to advertising veggies and a healthy diet? Clearly a far healthier population would result.
An hour after I arrived on September 5, Portland was hit with a cold, windy, sideways rain. The weather report said there was a 1% chance of that happening on that day and just a week later it was 90° to 95° F - 32 to 35° C. Whenever it gets down to the mid 60s – around 18 C – I go for the thermals, and still feel cold. In fact, it isn’t that bad, I could manage if I needed to, but I’m sure glad I don’t need to, I much prefer it hot to cold. (Besides, it’s still summer!) It’s especially disconcerting and dismaying therefore to go from a perfect 84° outside into a freezing (relatively speaking) bus. And that’s besides the fact that air-con costs money. Of course, part of the reason for setting the air-con down so low is the number of fat people riding the bus… all that extra insulation, you know.
This is already a bit dated, more soon...
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
According to Cambodia’s National Election Commission the ruling Cambodia People’s Party of Hun Sen has remained in power but with a reduced majority. They took 68 seats in the 123 seat legislature with almost 50% of the vote, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party wound up with 55 seats from 45% of the vote. However, the opposition insists it won 63 seats with a bare majority in the legislature and the controversy will take some time to resolve. There is a continuing big brouhaha over inadequacies in the vote register, which at least in part may be a result of most of government paperwork in Cambodia being done by hand.
Regardless of any irregularities that turn up I believe a narrow win for the CPP just about reflects the will of the people, though that has to be seen in the prism of the opposition suffering some built-in disadvantages. For one, legislators are chosen by proportional representation but within each province, not the country as a whole. The problem there is that the allocation of seats for each province has not changed since 1993 in spite of very large migrations to the cities where people are more likely to vote for the opposition. Secondly, there are nine rural provinces with small populations that receive a single seat each. They tend to vote for the CPP, but with only one seat up for grabs, even a small majority gets the single seat. Finally, changing registration is a difficult process so that many urban migrants remain registered in their home towns and have to return there to vote. As urbanites, they tend to vote for the opposition but since it’s a big and costly hassle for many poor people, many do not make the trip. Having the election date on the 28th of the month also might’ve compounded the problem since many Cambodians get paid on the first and would not have the money to travel home at the end of the month. The latter probably accounts for part of the lowered turnout from the past. This year turnout was 69% as opposed to nearly 90% ten years ago and about 80% five years ago.
The prime minister, in his first post-election speech, in contrast to threats of instability, chaos and civil war if the opposition won, counseled calm and comity and the desire for a peaceful resolution of election disputes. He reverted to his old ways shortly after. A couple months back he asserted that if the opposition won they would tear down all the schools, clinics and other public buildings with his name on them (tear them down before changing their names?)
He seemed to be running scared and for good reason considering the recent Malaysian election in which the ruling party, in power for 57 years since independence, lost the popular vote and only remained in office because of voting districts skewed towards rural voters. Though it may be unethical, immoral and unfair there’s nothing illegal about that. The US Senate is a good case in point since every state gets two senators regardless of population so that Wyoming with about 600,000 people gets the same representation as California with nearly 40 million. The bias towards rural districts is a big part of the reason that Malaysia’s ruling party was able to retain power and the same is true in Japan and a lot of other places. So once again, though unfair allocation of seats may be an example of inadequacies in the democratic process, it’s no less democratic. It depends on how a country chooses to design its voting system.
So even while the controversy rages on, it’s hard to imagine the opposition logistically overcoming the loss of all nine single seat provinces and the built in bias against fast growing urban areas. And regardless of widespread voting irregularities in which many voters’ names did not appear on the voter lists or voters having gone to the polls to discover that someone else had already voted in their name, it’s almost inconceivable that the ultimate outcome of the vote will change. It ain’t gonna happen. It’s akin to the election of George Bush in 2000 by a 5 to 4 vote of the Supreme Court in spite of the fact that Al Gore received a larger national vote overall and clear evidence of fraud, chicanery, voter suppression and bumbling on the part of election officials in Florida, the state that took G Bush over the top. Though the actual vote tally in Florida was very close and even open to interpretation, it was absolutely clear to all impartial observers (without going into tired old details) as well as the biased Supreme Court, that the will of Florida’s voters was to elect Al Gore.
Same is true here in Cambodia. No matter how many individual cases of irregularities are turned up by the National Electoral Commission (which is essentially controlled by the CPP) they are not going to change the final outcome, or lead to a revote. It ain’t gonna happen.
Nonetheless, this year’s vote is historic and game changing and a rude wake-up call to the Prime Minister. No longer does the CPP have the two thirds majority that would allow it to change the constitution at will and no longer can Hun Sen blithely assume that he will remain PM as long as he chooses as opposed to as long as the electorate chooses him. He’s spoken about planning to stay in office for another 20 years and has been grooming his sons to take over from him. Not so certain anymore. Now, if he does wish to remain in office, he’s got to seriously consider the people in his decision-making. He’s been predicting civil war if the opposition wins. In the past he conjured up the specter of civil war if the Khmer Rough tribunal expanded its prosecutions. That totally baffles me: Cambodia is a very peaceful country, there’s absolutely no taste for armed conflict amongst the people. The same is true of America: When the Supreme Court chose G Bush they knew no matter how disgusted or angry a large segment of the population might be, there’d be no armed conflict.
Moreover, with a personal bodyguard of 10,000 men, and control of the armed services, the PM could take the government by force any time he wished, there’d be no contest whatever. Nothing can challenge his dominance. No amount of demonstrating on the part of the opposition or claims of fraud is going to move him out of his position. And if he did stage a government takeover, there would be economic chaos as the result of international sanctions and opprobrium. His greatest accomplishment, a strong, stable, growing economy, would be in shambles.
And yet he seems to crave legitimacy, else how to interpret his bowing to international pressure and pardoning Sam Rainsy just before the election? And in the latest shift of tone, he has agreed to allow an independent inquiry into vote irregularities that would include the opposition and NGOs and the UN as observers, something he strongly resisted previously.
If I could vote, I’d find it very difficult to choose between the two. On the one hand you have a relatively benign strongman who’s done a lot for the country in regards to stability and growth, but who’s been around way too long. Anyone in office for 28 years as he has been becomes full of themselves and starts to believe they are invincible and infallible. They start to say and do things which they couldn’t if they felt threatened with losing power at the ballot box. Being in office that long also inevitably brings endemic corruption, even if it’s not the financial kind. As the opposition points out there are 200 under secretaries and deputy secretaries of state - a great patronage boondoggle - and hundreds of official advisors. Cambodia has 2000 generals in its armed forces, compared to 500 in the US military with 2000 times the budget. Patronage makes great friends and allies for the government, but it’s generally an unmitigated waste.
Alternatively, you have a fresh face that could begin to tackle corruption and be more responsive to the public but who also is a hot-headed bigot. Here is an example of his extremism; when campaigning amongst people displaced by the filling and eventual development of a large lake near the heart of Phnom Penh, he called the officials who approved it criminals and said they should go to jail for their actions. Personally, I think the filling of that lake was one of the worst decisions ever made by the CPP government, a crime against livability and good planning, but a newly elected leader can’t put people from previous governments in prison for making decisions they don’t like. And a reasonable person can’t even threaten to do that.
Furthermore, the good things he has said about reforming the government have been completely overshadowed in my mind by his racist anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. He’s even gone as far as demanding that Angkor Wat be taken back from the Vietnamese. Here’s how he arrived at that astounding deduction. Sok Kong, richest man in Cambodia, owner of the largest chain of gas stations and a lot more, has the concession to collect admission fees and do maintenance at the temples. He has lived in Cambodia for decades, but he is of Vietnamese descent, which evidently makes him an object of hatred and derision, not to mention idiotic rhetoric. Rainsy regularly uses a derogatory term for the Vietnamese who make up about 5% of Cambodia’s population and as far as I can tell after 12 years here, cause no trouble whatever, at least no more than any other ethnic group living here.
Here’s one example of the result of such racist rhetoric: The people who trashed two police cars in Phnom Penh because they were angry about not finding their names in the vote register also attacked and beat unconscious a man they thought was Vietnamese; turned out he wasn’t. In another incident a fifty-year-old man of Vietnamese descent, who was born in Cambodia, has lived his whole life here and holds a Cambodian ID card, was prevented from voting by a crowd spewing hatred.
Now those are small incidents so maybe there’s no cause for alarm, nonetheless, racially based violence is the last thing this country needs. It’s totally uncalled for and unnecessary and wouldn’t happen at all if the fires of prejudice were not stoked by Sam Rainsy. Khmer hold longstanding grudges towards their large and powerful neighbors - Thailand and Vietnam - on both sides, but have no problem relating to those people on an individual basis. They dislike them in theory, but relate easily as human beings.
On a personal level, Rainsy wants to tighten up on immigration, which might, as he goes after the Vietnamese, spill over into restrictions on people like myself. If they enacted rules similar to Thailand or Philippines, I couldn’t live here since I don’t have sufficient income.
Based on his personal vote count, Sam Rainsy at one time demanded that Hun Sen stand down and promised mass demonstrations if he didn’t. Once again, the likelihood of the PM vacating his post is down around absolute zero, but if Rainsy should persist in his threats of large protests, there well could be violence and bloodshed. The latest word suggests he is backing down from his threats of large protests and that the people who would be out there on the streets are shying away from participating based on the real possibility of violence. The Cambodian police are not averse to using force to break up unwanted demonstrations, but thankfully, fatalities to date have been extremely rare. Hopefully reason and commonsense will prevail and Sam Rainsy will stop fighting a losing battle and accept an important role as leader of the opposition.
Latest news before posting this: The government is massing tanks, armored personal carriers and other military equipment in the outskirts of Phnom Penh ‘to protect the country’ in case of widespread demonstrations threatened by the opposition. The CNRP has been wrangling with the CPP over a committee investigating election irregularities. The CPP is allowing some level of investigation but not enough to satisfy the opposition. Meanwhile, large numbers of garment workers opted to stay home right after the elections, rather than return to work, in fear of violence and chaos, but are slowly returning to their jobs. While events are still unfolding, there can be no doubt who will run the country for the next 5 years.
All told, I’m happy about the preliminary results which keep the CPP in control but give a lot more power to the opposition CNRP. In order for the legislature to conduct business there needs to be a 2/3 quorum, which the CPP no longer has, so Rainsy will have some leverage in enacting legislation he cares about and the PM will have to learn to compromise. Legislation reforming the National Electoral Commission to make it fairer and more representative would certainly be high on Sam Rainsy’s priority list and that would greatly enhance his chances in the next election in 2018. Hopefully before then he will tone down his bigotry or maybe another untainted leader will appear to lead the opposition.
Friday, August 9, 2013
After finishing my article about local beers in the June issue of Bayon I realized there was lots more beer tasting to do since I hadn’t touched on the dark beers and stouts. And since I made such a point of the superior quality of bottles over cans, I also thought I ought to see if I could taste the difference.
One thing I realized in the process of writing the last beer article was that downing a brew is different than drinking for the purpose of critiquing it. While some beers will impress you right off, whether positively or negatively, in most cases you don’t have clear thoughts about what you’re drinking unless you’re concentrating on thinking about describing it.
Further, I thought I should try to be a little more scientific about the tasting and rating by setting up a blind taste experiment. Three of us participated, two blind tasting, the third did the pouring so knew what he was drinking. The blind tasting is important because we all have prejudices which affect our choices. That is similar to how people in medical experiments who receive placebos think they’re getting better.
The first experiment was with five stouts; ABC, Black Panther, City Black, Guinness and Angkor Extra Stout. The last two were in bottles, the rest in cans. Black Panther and City are cheap beers in the $.50 retail category, the other three cost over twice that amount. All are 8% beers except for Guinness which is 6.5%. There are actually quite a few varieties of Guinness circulating in both cans and bottles - awhile back I came across a can that was only 4.5% alcohol which seemed very strange to me. At any rate, I only saw the 6.5% bottle when I went out buying so that’s what we tasted.
As it turns out, somewhat to my surprise, all three of us were in substantial agreement with only minor differences. We all placed ABC and City in the top two spots with ABC rated highest by two of us and City by the third. I wrote ‘bright and bubbly’ for ABC, my pick for first, ‘good but lighter than (ABC) for City my second choice. The other blind taster wrote ‘nutty, alcohol taste, full body, hoppy, lingering after taste’ for ABC. For City he wrote, ‘not impressed, caramel notes, sour, sweetish; but in the end after tasting all five he picked City as his first choice. All three of us placed Guinness at number 4, practically a shock considering its worldwide popularity. I wrote, ‘not great, a little bitter’. The other blind taster sniffed all five glasses before tasting any and correctly picked out Guinness by its smell. He wrote, ‘nutty, semi-heavy, fruity, not much aftertaste’. Myself and the pourer placed Angkor at number 3 and Black Panther at number 5. My fellow blind taster placed them just opposite. For Angkor (which I imagined I would choose as number 1 before the tasting began) I wrote ‘thin but good taste’, the other blind taster put ‘soapy, light, bitter, not much after taste’. For BP I wrote subtle, thin, not much to it. The other wrote ‘sour, light body, (thin).
After touting City lager in the last beer article, it was quite gratifying to see City Black rate so highly in the blind test. I had my doubts, considering how cheap and obscure City beer is and how quite a few people have trashed it, but at least in this case my taste buds came through. They are two different beers so one doesn’t necessarily carry over to the other, but still…
As for non-stout dark beers there are only two that are produced regionally: Kingdom Dark and Lao Dark. Both are lagers, Kingdom is 5%, Lao is 6.5%. The tasting came after drinking the five stouts, which meant I was already climbing way up the tipsy scale. The pourer had shorted himself on quantity – not sure why – so the remaining two of us drank about two mugs worth of stout – equivalent in alcohol content to three average beers – in a relatively short time. That might have been a mistake. The drunker you get the less discerning your palette – at a certain point you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the worst beer and the best.
First to come up was Kingdom, which I correctly identified, though of course I didn’t know that till later. It’s got that expensive-ingredient craft-beer taste, which I like, besides I’m very familiar with it. I wrote ‘bright, light, sweet’. My fellow blind taster wrote ‘sweet bubble gum, light weight body, slight caramel, bright in mouth’. For Lao he wrote, ‘first (choice) at first sip, light, heavier body than (Kingdom)’, (after further tasting) he wrote ‘still number 1’. I wrote ‘thicker’. The other two guys chose Lao over Kingdom, I preferred the later. In hindsight, just for comparison’s sake, I should’ve picked up a bottle of an expensive imported dark like Leffe. I’ve drunk Leffe a few times and it never impressed me as worth several times the cost of a cheap beer, but, as remarked above, you don’t really know a beer until you drink it for the purpose of describing and rating it.
My greatest disappointment regarding beers in Cambo is the dearth of dark beers and the total absence of ales, not to mention bitters, porters and other oddball varieties. I’m not sure why it’s so easy to produce stouts and seemingly insurmountable to brew ales, but I can’t wait for the day that some brave local brewmaster takes on that task. In fact, we do have an unusual homebrew here in Kampot: Angus at Café Espresso is brewing an 8% alcohol ginger beer. It’s not always consistent, but still ranges from good to excellent. Back in my commune days one of the guys put together a few kegs of homebrew. You buy a ready-made can of malted barley flavored with hops with yeast included, toss in an equal amount of sugar, fill the keg with water and keep warm and in a few days you have green beer ready to bottle. It was excellent. However, there were times when we couldn’t wait to let it age properly and guzzled it down green. Wow was it bad tasting, but it sure got you blasted when it didn’t also make you barf it all back up. At one point he flavored his beer with local indigenous herbs. It tasted great and I wonder why nobody has thought of producing herbal flavored beer commercially.
The next day I set up an experiment involving three sets of bottles/cans to see if we could discern the difference. That involved Angkor, Heineken and Cambodia. First up was Angkor, which I thought sure was Heineken. I also got the bottle/can thing wrong. My fellow blind taster got the bottle/can difference correctly and described Angkor bottle as ‘full body, smooth, balanced, and the can as tinny, bright, sour. As for Heineken, which I thought was Angkor, I couldn’t even guess regarding the bottle/can difference. Once again the other blind taster got it correctly. For the can he wrote, ‘tingly tongue, sweetish, heavy for a lager’. For the bottle he wrote, ‘skunky, non-descript’. He was right on about the skunky smell, though I doubt if I would’ve noticed without him mentioning it. Still, anyone who’s ever been within a mile of a skunk that’s let loose knows that smell intimately. If you happen to be in close proximity when it does its thing, you have to throw your clothes away because there’s nothing you can do to get the stink out.
The third set was Cambodia, or was supposed to be. Somehow between the time I dropped off the beers to be sampled the day before at the friend’s place and tasting time the next day the Cambo can had mysteriously disappeared. Well not so mysteriously, it obviously had been mistakenly imbibed. So what was the poor pourer to do after searching in the fridge high and low? He decided on double blind testing us by pouring a Ganzberg in place of the Cambo can. By then I’d gotten everything wrong – though of course I didn’t know it yet – and continued my losing streak by mistaking the Cambo bottle for a can. The other taster got the bottle thing wrong, his first mistake. Neither of us caught the Ganzberg substitution. Most surprisingly, both the other guys chose Angkor first for taste and Ganzberg second. I was totally flustered by then and couldn’t even choose which beer I liked best.
Compared to the first day when everything, or almost everything, was consistent and clear and we were in substantial agreement, the second tasting day was largely confused and out of sorts, although I’m obviously saying that because I simply was useless at telling the bottle/can difference. The other blind taster got everything right except for the double blind substitution, which nobody could be expected to get. If there actually had been a choice between Cambo bottle and can he might have also gotten that right. There’s a good reason why good quality beers are always put in bottles, not cans, in spite of the extra cost, but I sure couldn’t tell by tasting.
Aluminum reacts with food compared to glass which doesn’t so there must be a subtle difference. In fact I should buy bottles instead of cans out of principle because, regarding food, I never cook out of aluminum pots and am very reluctant to eat cheap, down-home local fare because the food sits in aluminum pots all day. My aversion is helped by the knowledge that they use massive amounts of salt, sugar and MSG, though, except for that, it usually doesn’t taste all that bad.
The blind tasting was edifying and fun and I’ll have to do it again sometime, meanwhile a couple of comments on Kingdom, still my favorite local beer. Whatever financial problems they might’ve been experiencing (if any) have been mitigated somewhat by Brunty ciders leasing one of their bottling lines. For at least a year they’ve got an extra income stream. If Brunty’s is successful, they’ll set up their own plant. So far, they say they’re doing well. I tried a strawberry; it was good but had an unpleasant aftertaste.
One complaint/suggestion I have for Kingdom has to do with the graphic arts on the bottle. The artwork, the animal drawings, are very nicely done but so indistinct I can’t tell what animal it is without my glasses on, and then still not easily. Considering most beers are consumed at night and many of those in dimly lit venues, that’s surely a deficiency. Sharp and clear is what is what all marketing and product design needs to be. Ditto for the writing on the back. The font is so small I can’t possibly read it without glasses even in bright light, though I can read a newspaper under those conditions, though not easily.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
I've finally got it together to post some pictures of my garden, one of the reasons I love my tropical small-town home. At last count I had 175 different varieties growing on a small 15 meter x 30 meter (50 ft x 100 ft.) piece of land. I love getting my hands in the dirt and making new plants so I sell duplicates of ones that are more valuable or interesting. Pictures don't always do them justice, but here they are nonetheless.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
It Amazes me that most of the people I know in Cambodia prefer cheap, average to awful beer to the good stuff. But first, before you start feeling insulted because I may begin to lambaste your taste in beer, let me state very clearly that, 1) I’m a highly opinionated person, so take that into account, besides how else can you be a critic? and 2) As the French would say, chacon a son gout, (I hope I got that right, it’s been more than 50 years since I took French in college) which loosely translated means, There’s no accounting for taste. No matter how atrocious your taste in beer may be, you not only have a right to your opinion, but your taste buds may actually signal a swooning adoration for what, in my opinion, or even the wider opinion, is swill.
I’m certainly no expert in brewing aside from spending a lot of time in Oregon, one of the hot spots of microbreweries in the states, and having a long and enduring relationship with the suds. There aren’t many days that go by without me downing at least a couple of beers. In fact, the only time I won’t imbibe is the night after a blowout when I can’t bring myself to drink even one. It’s not even that I drink all that much, six or seven beers over a long night is about my maximum, not a lot by a serious drinker’s standards. In fact, I’ve saved tons of money over the years just because my intake is so limited. I do like spirits and other alcoholic beverages occasionally, but 90% to 95% of the time I’m after a cold, thirst-quenching beer.
We will certainly disagree on the quality of different beers but the one thing we (me and all you dedicated beer drinkers out there) can agree on that beer is the elixir of life, or one of the most important ones at least. It opens up our happiness centers, smoothes out the hard edges in our daily grinds, breaks down our inhibitions and allows us to relax and have fun. Even if we are not plagued with daily grinds as such, it still gives life an ease and pleasantness that’s difficult to achieve otherwise. The world is nuts, whatever it takes to surf through the big waves is good enough.
Admittedly, all that happy, happy has its drawbacks. There’s only so many good times allocated to us before the happy, happy turns into total washout. It’s so much fun, you don’t know how to stop. That’s the way it is here in Cambodia… the bar culture is so much a part of the scene, and it’s so cheap, and all your friends are also out there having a good time, and… well, ‘nuff said.
Still, the quality of the suds has to make a difference to people spending hours and hours in imbibing mode, thus I’m baffled by the widespread indifference bordering on disdain on the part of many friends towards Kingdom beer, the only widely distributed craft beer in Cambodia. It’s far from the greatest of craft beers and equally far from the worst, coming up somewhere in the middle I would guess compared to the range of Oregon beers, which still makes it pretty good. Before I go any further, let me say I have no financial or other personal interest in Kingdom beer other than the desire to see it prosper so it stays available, so I can drink it whenever I can afford it.
What exactly are the complaints? One friend called it too hoppy. For me that’s the point. I like a rich, full-bodied hoppy flavor. Another, along the same line said, Yes, it’s got lots of flavor, but I don’t like it. A bar owner friend said, Nobody buys it, why pay $2.50 for a Kingdom when you can get a Beer Lao for half the price? (I can’t believe he chose Lao to make that comparison, more on that later.) Indeed, why drive a Lexus when a Corolla will get you there just the same for a quarter the price and maybe more on topic, why drink Johnny Walker Blue when Red will get you where you want to be at a small fraction of the cost? On the other hand, it makes total sense to drink down-market if you haven’t got the dough. But we’ve carried it too far, we’re so deep into a cheap canned beer culture we can’t deal with quality beer. However, cheap beer is also one of Cambodia’s strong points; you can have a good time every night without pissing away your life savings.
The dislike of Kingdom has gotten so strong it is widely rumored to be going out of business. They definitely were disappointed at the beer’s reception and were forced to make corrections in their business plan but I doubt if they’re about to fold. First they lowered the price of a case of bottles to $20 from $26, which definitely makes it easier for me to buy it. They also went into the cheap beer competition by producing Kingdom Gold in cans and pricing it about the same as the big three - Anchor, Angkor, Cambodia. They’ve recently set up a tent on a main street in Kampot to promote Gold, which doesn’t look much like they’re going out of business. The Gold is a lager and is competitive in quality and taste to the big mass produced beers – I like it better than those, though Cambo is hard to beat.
Another friend said, Sure it tastes good, but it’s not a beer you can drink all night. He actually had a point, though he didn’t realize it. That’s what I do, start with Kingdom then switch to cheaper beer, though that’s mostly because I don’t want to spend the extra money. However, I certainly wouldn’t do that in Oregon: I’m there so infrequently, the cost be damned, I’d never switch to Pabst or Miller from drinking quality beers unless I was in the direst of straits.
Well, what is it that makes Kingdom cost $20 per case as opposed to the mass produced beers that cost half as much, and the off brands which cost as little as $7.00 per case? In addition to the extra cost of putting beer in a glass bottle – in the case of Kingdom a custom bottle – as opposed to an aluminum can, there are only two basic factors that account for cost. Quality beer is the direct result of more expensive ingredients and the extra care taken in the brewing process. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll taste better, only that it has the potential to taste better.
The other valid reason for not drinking Kingdom exclusively is it’s a lot more fattening. Based on American-sized 12 ounce containers – about 350ml – an average cheap beer has about 140 calories; light beers contain about 100 calories; craft beers about 250 calories. So my friend, who can easily down 10 beers a night would be getting a full day’s calories just from beer if he only drank Kingdom, compared to 2/3 of his necessary daily intake from cheaper beers. Craft beers have more calories because they use richer, higher quality ingredients, like the difference between ice milk and ice cream. And they generally taste better because they use, for instance, more expensive malt and more than one type of better quality hops. An award winning Oregon craft beer uses a blend of five different varieties of hops; that’s not something you will find in a cheap beer.
The friend who accepted that Kingdom has more flavor but still didn’t like it is able to down Anchor draft without grimacing. Until recently, I could barely drink it and started looking for more expensive and less ecological alternatives. The quality seems very erratic; recently, it actually tasted good a few times, but then descended back into its normal bitter awfulness. It is advertised as smooth because there isn’t much to it, though it’s not the fact that it’s a pilsner, since Kingdom in bottles also has a pilsner along with a dark lager. I tend to think it wasn’t my taste buds playing tricks on me, but rather that they accidentally, mistakenly produced a better tasting beer, then realized they’d better get back to their regular awful taste so as not to confuse their customers. Anchor in cans is not that bad, though if faced with a choice between Anchor and Angkor, I’ll choose Angkor about 2/3 of the time, it’s got more to it.
I felt Cambo was better from the first taste, and thankfully the two bars I most patronize both have it on draft. Cambodia is sweet and light without a hint of harshness or bitterness. A friend who doesn’t like it called it too sweet, but sweet’s the opposite of bitter so that’s what makes it good. Cambo recently won third place in a category of 4% to 5% lagers in a beer tasting competition in London. I wasn’t surprised as it’s exceptional for a cheap beer. What did surprise me was that Tiger came in second place, which required that I buy one to include in this essay. I’ve drunk a few Tiger’s over the years but somehow it never impressed me as being worth the extra cost, but after drinking one for the purpose of describing it I’d have to say it’s pretty good and more flavorful than average. It’s clearly higher quality, but probably not enough for me to choose it above Cambo, for instance.
Then there’s the environmental aspect. Draft is easily the least damaging to the planet, at least in Cambodia, since the kegs can be reused practically indefinitely, so I’ll nearly always go for draft first. But it does have its negatives since it has to be kept cold once it’s tapped and there’s a need for gas to bring it out of the keg. It’s also less consistent than cans or bottles depending on how long it takes to finish the keg – after three or four days the quality plummets. Cans are next on the environmental scale since aluminum is valuable and easily recyclable. But beer in cans simply cannot taste as good as in bottles or properly handled kegs. Nobody producing a quality beer would ever put it in cans, but that’s a problem here in Cambodia since the empty bottles aren’t recyclable, nobody wants them.
Not saying many of the bottles couldn’t be designed to be washed and reused. Except for Kingdom, the bottles used by Angkor and Cambodia and other local breweries are all standard and interchangeable. However, they’d need to be purposely designed for washing since that requires a thicker glass than disposable bottles. Reusable bottles last an average of twenty washes, and if the energy necessary for the process were renewable then their ecological footprint would be about the same as draft, with better consistency and quality.
While we’re at it a discussion of other locally available beers is in order. My bar owner friend who thoroughly dislikes Kingdom and has Cambo on draft, sometimes prefers Klang, which I find astounding, sort of the outer limit of chacon a son gout, since I find it harsh, heavy, bitter and it leaves an unfriendly aftertaste. I don’t want to use up my entire repertoire of negative adjectives on it or the list would be a lot longer. Klang which means strong in Khmer originally had a big 7% on its can but that caused a problem for some in power – I’m not sure why since the stouts are all at 8%. As a result they lowered the content to 6% and ceased to make a big deal of it. Even if I thought it tasted good I’d try to avoid it since I’d drink it just as fast as the 5 percenters, but it’d get me drunker sooner and send me home that much earlier. It’s super cheap, that much I can say for it - lately as little as $7 case. While we’re on the topic of nasty brews, Zorok, from Vietnam and Special deserve mention. Once I’ve paid for and opened a beer I’m going to drink it as a matter of principle, but man is it difficult with those two; both taste like weak dishwater with Special especially grotesque.
I recently tried a can of Phnom Penh beer; it was actually kind of bright and tasty, nothing like the cruddy suds that I remember from the last time – I’d actually buy it again. There’s a new beer called Ganzberg, which bills itself as German style. It’s good quality with a subtle, gentle taste, but not as flavorful as some of the others available. Beck’s is available at a reasonable price in a few places. It’s a good example of a hearty, strong tasting brew without a hint of bitterness, definitely worth the small extra cost.
I recently came across City beer. It’s available in only one place that I know of in Kampot. It’s brewed in Kampong Chhnang, though I had to get a Khmer friend to translate for me since there’s no info as to its genesis in English. It’s super cheap at $7.50 per case and is my favorite local beer aside from Kingdom bottles. After me going on about equating good beer with expensive ingredients you might rightly question how I could like one of the cheapest beers available. And I still wonder myself, but as often as I drink it, thinking maybe I’m missing something, it still comes out as one of the best; it’s light, bright, sparkly and full of flavor. It doesn’t have the quality of Cambo, but I like it better. And besides it’s cheap, which, when balanced out, makes it a bit easier for me to justify spending all that extra on Kingdom.
As I was touting City amongst friends at the bar, one fellow scoffed and said the motodops think it’s so bad they won’t touch it. Now this fellow often prefers Beer Lao to Cambo draft, so I retorted by saying, I’ve drunk lots of Lao over the years but I’ve never, ever thought, Gee, I’d like a Beer Lao tonight, it just never occurs to me. Just to make sure it was indeed as I remembered it I bought a can and yes, it was thick, syrupy, bitter and seriously lacking in bubblies. So chacon a son gout to you too buddy!