Thursday, March 21, 2013

Kampot Update

The old market, a fine bit of architecture, was built in the late sixties but was gutted by fire just a couple years after it was completed and lay abandoned until recently. The above was published in my March Bayon Pearnik article. I caught some heavy flack because my history of the old market was way off. I was first told the market was built in 1904. That sounded way too early and considering where the info came from that date seemed suspect. It came  from a Brit and his wife, who were both in their sixties. They owned a bar called Bonkers; it wasn’t all that successful and they both in succession drank themselves to death, so you see what I mean. Later when I read that it was built in the early sixties, I ran with it. However, our amateur historian kinda snarled at me as he searched out the net and found a aerial picture of Kampot from the thirties which clearly shows the market. Still, hard as he tried, he couldn’t find a definitive date for its opening or a time or reason for its abandonment. I expect/hope it’ll all be clear when our new museum is open. There must be some locals who know about it. Will keep you posted.
Cambodia’s troubles kept it derelict for a long time until rehabilitation began about a year ago. It is now filling up, though mostly on the outside, none of the inner stalls have been rented yet. And in a curious juxtaposition, it’s bringing Khmer owned and oriented businesses to the riverfront. Until the market opened nearly all the businesses on the river were western owned or catered to westerners. In contrast, most of the new shops are clothing stores typical of everywhere in the city, but there’s also a tailor, a fancy “Mans Hairdresser” shop, tour/travel agents and a mini-mart. I expected more of the souvenir, specialty traveler clothing type to inhabit the market, but no, at least not yet.
At the front of the market facing the river are two restaurants that provide a study in contrasts. One is western styled with a thatched roof covering part of the large space, very nice plantings and a pleasant ambiance. The other is a Khmer style fast food place specializing in deep fried snacks, including chicken feet and meatballs and assorted other foods on a stick. The atmosphere is strictly bare-bones, cheap-plastic-chairs and -stools. It’s open only for late afternoon and early evening snacks and does a booming business though rent is high and margins are low so it remains to be seen how successful it will be.
There are lots of people around, the place is hopping, with new guest houses, restaurants and bars opening up regularly. I don’t mind having all those tourists around, especially knowing it’ll quiet down considerably in a couple months. There’s also been some very fine restorations of historic buildings. Kampot is a very old town, the country’s first port, and it’s old district is relatively well preserved.
The former governor’s mansion at the south end of the river promenade is being converted to a museum which they plan to make free. They’ve removed the air-conditioners to save in maintenance costs. Doing that has allowed them to open up and aerate the building: it’s looking good. Just a bit further south the riverfront park has been extended another 200 meters almost to the Aquatic Sports Center. I wouldn’t be surprised if they intend to extend it even further. That area is largely undeveloped but the way things are going, I expect it won’t stay that way long, especially with a new park on the river.
 The government has been going all out laying asphalt on nearly all the city’s thoroughfares. They evidently think westerners will be impressed by lots of nice pavement. They’ve improved all the park strips and traffic circles, so what else is there? There’s no real park the way we think of them in the west, but Cambodians don’t seem to grasp the concept of large natural green spaces with miniforests, ponds, grassy areas, picnic tables, and sports fields and courts. As a result, all they know about improving the city is to lay more pavement. In my neighborhood, just north of new bridge road, they’re going all out paving in concrete. I guess since it requires no special equipment – as asphalt does - only lots of labor which is cheap, it’s easier to do it that way.
As a measure of where Kampot is going, as well as Cambodia as a whole, I’ll recount my land experience. I purchased a 3000 meter plot 3 kilometers from town in 2008 in the last throes of the late property boom for $4.60 per square meter - $14,000. In between the time the contract was signed, but before the hard title was ready about 6 weeks later, the owners were offered $20,000.
Within a year or so, I decided the country gentleman/farmer life was not for me. At the age of 67 I couldn’t stand having my mind constantly boggled by house construction and maintenance, working the land and hiring local help; it was more than I could bear. However, by then the market had crashed and the land was barely worth $2/meter - $6000, so I was forced to wait to try to sell it. In the beginning of 2011, I offered it at $9000 and found a buyer, who as it turned out, couldn’t finish the payments. Last year I had two different people who really wanted it at $12,000 but didn’t have the money.
This year I offered it at $5/meter and still no buyer: everybody agreed that it was a nice piece of land and the price was fair but buying land is not like buying a cheap cellphone, it has to be the right person. About a month ago a real estate guy who I’d talked to 2 years before called and asked if the land was still available and what I wanted for it: I said $15,000 - $5/meter. He showed it to friends (who didn’t know I had land for sale) and said I wanted $6/meter! The longer I wait the more it’s worth, pretty soon it’ll be $50/meter. Well, probably not. Anyway, I’d just as soon sell it now at its current price before the next crash. It might not happen for a couple years, but I’d rather not take the chance. Meanwhile, it’s looking up for Kampot and Cambo.
On a sad and disturbing note, a naked young French tourist washed up on the river about a kilometer from the guest house she was staying in. By various accounts the police have a suspect or suspects, but we all hope the got the real culprit(s) and not just fingered the first bad guy who came along in order to have a quick resolution to the case. While that type of thing can happen anywhere and Cambo is far safer for us than a lot of other places in the world, it’s no less heart-rending and a cause for concern.  
Overload and Disconnect: About three years ago Highway 3 between Kampot and Sre Ambel, where it connects to Highway 4, was an excellent road, but once the reconstruction of route 3 between Phnom Penh and Kampot was finished, it became an alternate route for big trucks heading from the capital to Sihanoukville. As a consequence, until recent patching was done, it had become a shambles. It’s 20 kilometers farther going via Kampot, but evidently, considering the tolls on Highway 4, it must still be cheaper.
The reconstruction of route 3, as all the national roads that I’m aware of, was done with a layer of bitumen tar between two layers of gravel. The lower layer of gravel is rolled and packed down, the tar is added on top then a second layer of gravel is just tossed on top with the action of vehicles running over it creating a road surface. That works fine for a road used by light vehicles, though even there, potholes will develop quickly. As long as they are patched as soon as they appear the road can last quite a long time. That type of surface is used because it’s a lot cheaper than higher-quality asphalt pavement. If you’re driving on route 3 you’ll notice that the pavement on the bridges is asphalt, making a much smoother ride than the rest of the roadway which is bitumen. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s standard practice.
It’s a completely different story when overloaded trucks, especially giant ones, use the road. In that case, within a few months large sections of the surface are trashed. Cambodian truck drivers have an obsession with getting as much as they can on their rig, regularly loading 10 tons of material on a truck designed for 2 tons. Just recently in my neighborhood one such truck packed high with 50 kilo sacks of salt backed over a newly installed concrete drainage pipe buried under 10 or 15 cm of dirt and caved it right in. To tell you the truth I didn’t feel all that sorry for the trucker as I watched him as he was emptying most of the load so he could get the truck back on the road, and then, of course, having to reload the whole thing. I also wouldn’t sympathize all that much with him when his rig breaks down from overloading… though I guess even stupid and/or inconsiderate people deserve sympathy sometimes.
Overloading trucks actually doesn’t save all that much money when you factor in expensive repairs, highway breakdowns - which cost a lot more to fix - and the extra fuel needed to carry an excessive load. Probably the worst offenders are the rock trucks used in construction. The owners regularly raise up the sides 20 or 30 cm and then pile the rock as high as they can. They are so heavy they can barely do 40 kph at full throttle with the engine screaming. What’s more, some of the trucks that ply our roads are so large to begin with, even before their capacity has been expanded, that they would be too heavy to be allowed on American roads, so obviously pure disaster for roads here made of a thin layer of bitumen. However, even the new roads constructed of more durable asphalt are breaking up after only a year or so.
With no firm regulations and no enforcement of weight limits, the authorities will probably spend as much money repairing roads as building them. The only completely legitimate way to enforce weight limits would be by installing truck scales, not very likely here in the near future. On the other hand, it isn’t that hard to determine the weight of some materials, like a cubic meter of rock, and then measure the truck’s capacity to determine how much weight it’s carrying. The biggest trucks aren’t necessarily the worst offenders since it’s weight per axle that counts. Some of those, which are never seen in America, have triple rear axles and double  front steering axles. Along with the rock trucks, there are lots of giant stake bed trucks, with only single rear axles, loaded to the top with heavy materials.
The big truck problem is compounded in Kampot by the location of the access road to the new bridge - finished in 2010 - passing by the main entry to the public market. Public markets are notoriously congested so having lots of miscellaneous, extraneous traffic including giant trucks with their belching fumes, noisy engines and driver’s tendency to excessive horn blowing, doesn’t do much for the neighborhood’s ambiance or safety and is really not the way you design a city.
I have a degree in urban studies and have spent extensive mental energy mulling over planning concepts all my life so the problem was obvious to me from the start, but in this case the disconnect is so clear that several people with no such background have mentioned that problem to me. The planners faced a serious, though not intractable, dilemma since there was no easy alternative; that is, there was no other street they could’ve used that didn’t require purchasing expensive urban land. Except for the need to purchase almost 200 meters of right-of-way the street one block north would’ve been perfect since it’s largely fronted by industrial uses, which since they already tend to be noisy and polluting, mesh perfectly with highways. When developing greenfields, essentially blank slates, planners are free to design at will, but when dealing with the city ‘as built’, they are seriously constrained. In this case neither the bridge nor the market are going to be moved to accommodate good planning.
Ultimately, the only answer in this situation would be a bypass road or in the distant future a freeway. You never want through traffic, especially when that includes large trucks, going through a town or congested area. Until recently there was so little traffic in Cambodia that that didn’t matter much. Besides, the country was lucky to have any decent roads let alone modern limited-access highways.
One change likely to make a difference soon is the completion of the Phnom Penh – Sihanoukville rail line. Toll Holdings, an Australian company that has the concession to run the operation, has run a test train over the track and for some time has run a train to the Kampot Cement plant which is about halfway from the capital to Kampot. Bulk cargo is always cheaper and less damaging to the environment to transport via rail compared to road, so hopefully most heavy freight now busting up our highways will switch to rail. Also hopefully, they won’t wait long to start passenger service. The tracks are built for 80 kph trains and it’s only 150 kilometers from PP to KP so even with several stops it shouldn’t take more than 2/12 or 3 hours to make the run. Won’t that be great.
Also, bus services have improved immensely since I first started making the trip 6 years ago. Back then the trip took six hours or more, considering the condition of the roads, the extra distance of going through Kep (at the time the southern leg of highway 3 was almost impossible for large buses to negotiate) the road from the highway to Kep was a 15 kph dirt road, and the bridge 10 k’s east of Kampot was under construction. Now there are two big-bus lines going direct which cuts the trip down to 3 1/2 hours, and two ‘luxury’ minibus lines offering a very fast and comfortable ride. Still, nothing compares with a train ride where you can easily get out of your seat and walk around. Trains are also far superior scenically since the tracks go through the countryside as opposed to buses passing by lots of trashy roadside buildings, not to mention, here in Cambodia, honest-to-goodness roadside trash.