A life unexamined

October 6, 2014

During my recent sojourn to the UK, I missed what is a rather wonderful, if depressing, story from here in Phnom Penh, and one that seems to encapsulate many of the problems currently faced by Cambodia as a whole.

The results of a new government blitz on cheating and corruption at this year’s school grade 12 exams were announced while I was away. And it turns out that only 26 percent of students passed this year. This is compared with 87 percent who passed last year. Only 11 students got the top ‘A’ grade, out of the almost 90,000 who sat the exams.

The Education Ministry says that for the first time in recent history, all the students who passed did so purely on merit. A pass mark is necessary to get a university place here.

In the past, students could take mobile phones and cheat sheets into the exam. Teachers would sell test papers, students would pool money to get invigilators to turn a blind eye to cheating, and parents would even throw rocks wrapped with answer sheets through the windows of testing centres.

This year was rather different.

Copies of the exam were kept under lock and key, military police were deployed at test sites, students were patted down at least three times before entering the exam halls, and thousands of volunteers were hired to act as independent monitors.

Now I think this is brilliant. The recently appointed Education Minister, Hang Chuon Naron, who has a surprisingly good reputation, appears determined to make permanent changes. And these changes are going to cause pain. He told a local paper: “The result of the exam allows us to fix our education system, [because] we can see the strengths and the weaknesses [clearly] … the reforms are necessary because we cannot allow this to continue, otherwise we will produce massive [numbers] of graduates who will not be able to find jobs.”

But those who used to benefit from the corruption, the teachers and students, have been whining on about how corrupt everyone else is, how expensive daily life is, how having monitors watching them puts them off giving the right answers, how everyone else used to do it in the past, how life isn’t fair and so on.

So the government has given in, and announced a re-sit of the exams in the second week of October. I’d like to think that 60,000-odd kids who failed are now working like Japanese beavers to learn the stuff they clearly hadn’t bothered with before, but they may just be redoubling their efforts to find ways to cheat. We shall have to wait and see. But it’s a start.


Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

September 29, 2014

Well, they’ve gone ahead and done it: Australia and Cambodia have signed a deal to see Cambodia take a number of Australia-bound refugees from Nauru and settle them in the countryside here somewhere.

At a ceremony on Friday, Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signed the deal with Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng, which also includes $40m extra cash for Cambodia. The ceremony was farcical, with waiters upending trays of Champagne and neither Morrison nor Sar Kheng saying a word to anyone, even each other, for the five minutes they stood drinking on stage. Journalists were baffled.

Afterwards, Cambodia said that Australia had asked them to call off a planned press conference; Australia later denied this, saying that media arrangements were down to Cambodia. So much for international cooperation.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop defended the deal, saying that Cambodia asked Australia if it could help resettle asylum seekers, because it has aspirations to be a developed country.

“Cambodia is very keen to get people into their country who can help them grow their economy,” Bishop said.

Ah, yes, that entrepreneurial spirit. Just what Cambodia needs; a thousand or so more dirt-poor people here to rely on the country’s education and health care systems. However Cambodian officials have said they might begin by resettling just five refugees.

Most people here in Cambodia are against the deal; street protests have been held outside the Australian embassy. The UNHCR and Amnesty International have both condemned the deal.

President of Cambodia’s Centre for Human Rights, Ou Virak, said it was both “shameful” and “illegal”.

“The Australian Government has an obligation to protect refugees and sending them Cambodia’s way is not how a responsible country protects refugees,” he said.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy warned that “very little” of the money exchanged under the deal will filter down to the refugees.

“It will be pocketed by corrupt government officials,” he said. “Refugees are not like any ordinary goods that can be exported from one country and imported by another country. They are human beings.”

But a local English-language newspaper had a different point of view: “Mr. and Ms. Refugee, given the realities of human smuggling, you and your family gambled big – and lost … In return for an investment of several thousands dollars, you thought you had a winning lottery ticket by entering Australia by the back door … 
Cambodia’s economy is growing by seven percent – last year, this year, and probably next year… So, pull up your socks (you won’t need them here), and adjust to your new reality.”


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Back again

September 16, 2014

Sorry, everyone, for such a long break between posts; I’ve just got back from the UK, where I was burying my beloved grandmother, and taking care of her estate. Not a holiday at all, and not particularly cheerful, but what can you do?

I got back to Phnom Penh last night after a couple of weeks of full fridges, efficient shops, boring television, well-stocked supermarkets and loads of tedious chatter about the imminent independence of Scotland.

In many ways, my journey back to PP was illustrative of why I live here now, and not in the West. I was dropped at a random bus stop in central Oxford on Sunday morning; the bus was there and waiting for me, more by luck than judgement. The ride to Heathrow was quick and entirely painless. A bit of to-ing and fro-ing at the airport to get to the right terminal, then a couple of gins and then eight hours to Doha. A couple of hours at Doha, thence to Saigon and eventually Phnom Penh.

All in all it took some 21 hours, door-to-door. Twenty-one hours where the only words I spoke to anyone were to specify meal choices or order drinks. Otherwise I read and watched truly execrable movies whilst gliding serenely across quarter of the earth. It was cool and efficient, slightly grotty, slightly irritating and largely impersonal.

Then back in PP, things started to improve. Leaving the terminal, five minutes after deplaning, I was struck by the great wall of Cambodian heat, and my shirt started sticking to my back. Just leaving the airport car park, a dozen random people smiled at me. The roads were potholed and chaotic, the traffic fizzed and shunted alarmingly. The roadside stalls were piled high with oranges and bananas, apples and dragon fruit. Whole families squeezed onto mopeds weaved in and out of the traffic as my tuk-tuk driver and I discussed what we were going to do during the upcoming Pchum Ben festival, and he practiced his English.

Back at my flat, someone had dug up the road, and I had to climb over a ten-foot mound of earth and mud to get to my gate. I’ve never been happier. Phnom Penh isn’t impersonal; it’s a riot of sounds and smells, exuberant noises and ghastly sights; it’s mud and death and poverty and life and stink and scream and now, and I love it. It’s not smooth or efficient, but it’s undeniably alive.

Dog Harley was initially overjoyed to see me, then thought better of it, and sat under the dining table ostentatiously eating a scrap of rawhide and pretending not to look at me. That didn’t last long, though, before he came around. And now I’m back in the office, planning a trip to the provinces in a couple of days to meet with a number of HIV-infected orphans, which promises to be fairly heavy, but also fairly profound.

It seems a world away from the UK. I love the UK, kind of, but I adore it here.

And finally, for no particular reason, a weird photo of Jimmy Page visiting Angkor Wat. Just because Jimmy Page…


Jimmy Angkor



Golden Earring

August 11, 2014

When I was a relatively young thing, my favourite hobby was getting down to the front at gigs of heavy metal bands, and standing as close as possible to the huge speaker stacks. Long-forgotten bands, like Girlschool, The Tygers of Pan-Tang, Diamond Head, Magnum and Saxon all tried to outdo each other through volume, and I lapped it up.

I saw a lot of bands. And then I ended up playing in a lot of bands, whose hallmark was also volume, rather than skill. It was all very rock ’n’ roll. Hearing loss? Never going to happen to me…

Ah, the inviolable stupidity of youth.

So now, of course, I’m actually quite deaf. For the last few years, I’ve avoided nightclubs (also, young people look at me oddly when I call them discoteques) as conversation is a trial, with too much aimless and uninformed nodding on my part. But things came to a head a couple of nights ago.

There were lots of senior journalists suddenly parachuted into Phnom Penh for the verdict at the Khmer Rouge trial. (Yay for Cambodian justice!) And, as journalists tend to, they all gathered for a drink or two at the local hacks’ watering hole. I was there, swapping jokes and stories with people, but noticed that I often had to get them to repeat themselves while I leaned in, waving an imaginary ear trumpet. But it was a warm and convivial night; at some point someone started breaking out rounds of tequila shots. It was fun.

At one point, I was introduced to a journalist from one of the world’s biggest newspapers. We smiled at each other. I was keen to make friends with him.

He appeared to nod towards my trusty canvas satchel, slung over my shoulder. “So, that’s where you keep your chocolate spanners, is it?” I thought I heard him say.

Trying hard not to look too confused, I replied: “Well, yes, on the whole, in a general sense,” desperately trying to buy time, while I worked out what he might have been smoking. He looked a bit confused too.

“But do you have the seven keys to the onyx mountain in there?” I nodded at him. “Oh yes, absolutely.”

“Toast, I often find, alphabet nozzle hippy airplane,” he said, animatedly. At which point I gave up. “Er, sorry, I’m afraid I’ve got to go.” I shook his hand again, and fled out into the night. I’ve still no idea what he might have been saying. But I wish I had.

I still don’t regret my early hi-volume music adventures though. It’s all rock ’n’ roll, right?


No comment

July 28, 2014


Harsh defamation ruling in Cambodia has broader implications

New York, July 24, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by the hefty financial damages imposed on a blogger in a defamation case in Cambodia. The ruling could have a detrimental effect on online commentary in the country.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday convicted Rupert Winchester, a British journalist based in Phnom Penh who runs a personal blog, “The Mighty Penh,” of defamation and ordered him to pay 8 million riel (US$2,000) in fines and 100 million riel (US$25,000) in compensation to Etienne Chevenier, a French property developer, according to the independent daily Phnom Penh Post and local journalists who spoke to CPJ by email.

Chevenier sued the blogger under Article 305 of the criminal code in connection with a June 4, 2013, post on his blog that said the development company intended to tear down a colonial-era building and build a high-rise. Chevenier denied the allegation. According to the lawsuit, Winchester also made the allegation in an article for the Phnom Penh Post, where he was working at the time, but the paper retracted the story. Winchester removed the post from his blog on June 7, 2013.

Winchester told local media he would appeal the decision.

In a July 13 statement, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia said a conviction would “set a bad precedent for blogs and personal commentary on social media in Cambodia.”

“This case could have a chilling effect on online speech in Cambodia, which is already at risk,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Cambodian courts should dismiss this overly punitive decision against Rupert Winchester on appeal.”

Cambodia has a long record of using both civil and criminal courts to harass journalists for reporting.

According to press reports, Cambodia has drafted a cybercrime law that press freedom groups say could be used to suppress online speech in the country. A draft of the law was leaked earlier this year, although the government has denied the existence of such a bill, according to the U.S.-funded Voice of America Khmer. Under Article 28 of the leaked document, an individual would face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 6 million riels for engaging in activities in publications that are “deemed to be non-factual which slanders or undermined the integrity of any governmental agencies, ministries” or that are “deemed damaging to the moral and cultural values of the society.”

More on



June 24, 2014

I was reading a new biography of the American writer John Updike over the weekend, and was surprised to learn that he had visited Phnom Penh in 2007. Surprised, because he had always seemed to be such an insular, American sort of writer, whose only forays outside the country had probably been sunny golfing trips to the Caribbean.

I was even more surprised to discover, after a bit of digging, that Updike had written a poem about Phnom Penh. Updike’s skills as a poet are often overlooked; despite occasional talk of him being ‘the American Larkin’, he clearly lacks the sort of bilious cynicism, dour pessimism and discontent that makes Larkin so great. Instead Updike’s poetry is often dismissed as being light and ignorable, and its engagement with the everyday world in a technically accomplished manner seems to count against him.

So I sought out the poem, and reproduce it below, as part of my hunt for great writers’ work on Cambodia. It should be noted that it is a sonnet, which is far more difficult to write than you might think.


Phnom Penh


French touches linger in the shopworn streets-

Art Deco market like a Pantheon

in flaking mustard stucco, balconies

of lacy ironwork, and boulevards

whose breadth translates as logique pure beneath

the rush and buzz of fragile motorbikes

where four can ride, the smallest sound asleep,

the mother’s smooth legs dangling in high heels.


Life has returned to avenues Pol Pot

once emptied with insane decrees; a school

employed as torture house has now become

a museum where the soon-to-be-dead

stare mutely from the walls. A savage dream

of order melts into a traffic jam.



Spirit of Ecstasy?

June 16, 2014

Driving down to the coast last week for a spot of thoroughly undeserved R&R, I was struck by the economic progress that Cambodia has made over the couple of years that I’ve been here. Where once Russian Confederation Boulevard was lined with grubby old buildings and vacant dusty weed-infested lots, recently it has taken on a new lease of life. Russian Boulevard is the main road from the centre of town to the airport, and practically every car manufacturer who sells here has opened a showroom on it.

Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan, Dacia, Honda, Mazda: all of them now have gleaming showrooms, which all seem to be relentlessly empty of buyers. Even BMW has a showroom, and Porsche is in the process of building one. Yes, Porsche. The Cayenne 4X4 seems to be the most popular model, built as it is for nominally tough road conditions, which describes most of Cambodia’s roads.

But I was completely astonished to hear that the latest manufacturer to announce the opening of a sales office here is Rolls Royce. “Nobody would believe that such a luxury car would come to Cambodia,” said Minister for Industry and Handcrafts Cham Prasidh, who was present for the announcement of the new showroom. Well, count me among those who are somewhat surprised by the news.

At the announcement of the opening of the new Rolls Royce showroom in Phnom Penh

At the announcement of the opening of the new Rolls Royce showroom in Phnom Penh. (Courtesy AP)

According to the World Bank, Cambodia’s average per capita annual income is just over $1,000. Looking at the prices of the Rolls Royces they plan to sell here, it seems difficult to square their ambitions with the reality of the country. Your average Cambodian, if they wanted a Roller, and could save, let’s say, half their annual income, would be able to drive one off the lot in the year 2914. Actually, you’d have to factor in another 47 days just to fill the tank up. Because a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith will cost you $450,000 in Phnom Penh.

The story made newspapers around the world: “Luxury Cars for One of World’s Poorest Countries” was the gist of the story (actually, absolutely everyone ran the AP story) but no one really looked at it particularly hard. But I think it’s worth repeating: these cars cost 450 times the average annual income here. Just to put that in context, if Rollers had the same relationship to GDP in the UK as they will do here, they would cost $16.785 million. Or a shade under £10 million.

A spokesman for the company said five Rolls-Royces have been sold in Cambodia since 2005. I don’t know where he got those figures from, but it is actually quite easy to buy a Roller here: I’ve just priced a clean second-hand one at $90,000 from a dealer on Norodom Boulevard, and although they’re not exactly common, you do see them around.

I guess you can see the logic of Rolls Royce’s move: BMW, which owns the company, are looking to keep shareholders happy by announcing expansion plans: on paper it probably looks quite good, opening a showroom in a country with 8 percent per annum economic growth might seem like shrewd business. And of course, there’s no denying the cachet and prestige that accrues to those locals who can afford to buy a Roller. But with grey market ones available for a third of the cost, you’d have to be pretty thick to part with all that cash. I had to interview the official Range Rover dealer a while ago, who told me with a straight face that a new car from him started at $168,000. I had priced a second-hand one for $35,000 while on the way to see him. I asked him how many he sold a year, and he quickly changed the subject.

So, Rolls Royce is opening a showroom in Phnom Penh; it’s sure to become a favourite of lazy photojournalists, who can shoot ragged kids playing in the dirt with a backdrop of 160-mile-per-hour teak-and-walnut encrusted overlord carriers to accompany the usual “Phnom Penh – City of Contrasts” drivel. But it will be interesting to see how the business goes. I’ll keep you posted.

Many happy returns

June 5, 2014

So, I’m back in PP. And it’s great.

Different from the UK, but great.

So, in the UK, I had a wonderful time, some of which involved lying snuggled underneath a duvet, watching raindrops chase each other down the windowpane, before I got up and ate bacon and eggs and fried bread, courtesy of my saintly mother.

But back in Phnom Penh on my first morning back, the awful dog, Harley, had other ideas. At 0500hrs I was woken up by the little shit trying to debride my arm. So 0515hrs saw me tottering up our favourite walking street, little plastic bag firmly in hand.

But it wasn’t half bad. The thick golden sunlight was slanting through the trees, casting long shadows from the monks on their way to the temple; woodpeckers and pink-necked pigeons cooed in the trees. Street-sleepers were waking up slowly, rolling up their hammocks in preparation for another day of not very much. The ochre walls of the Royal Palace glowed softly in the early morning light. It wasn’t as hot as it would get later in the day, the unrelenting heat which seems to be going on rather too long this year. It was beautiful, and exotic, and home. All in all, it’s great to be back.

And at least it was my choice to come. The papers when I got back were full of the news that Cambodia is close to a deal with Australia to accept some of that country’s asylum seekers. I wrote about this a couple of months ago, hoping it was some kind of a joke. It now looks as if it is, in fact, true: “A statement posted on what is purported to be Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page suggested that Cambodia may be close to signing off on the deal to resettle more than 1,000 refugees from Australia’s Nauru island detention centre.”

Cambodia has since admitted that it will take refugees from Nauru, but only if those seeking refuge “volunteer” to be resettled here.

Australia’s Nauru detention centre currently holds more than 1,100 asylum seekers, predominantly from Muslim-majority countries such as Iran and Pakistan. It’ll be interesting to see how many of them “volunteer” to come to Cambodia. Watch this space.

Empty calories

May 18, 2014

Back in the UK for a few days, I’ve been interested by the things that have struck me, after a couple of years in Phnom Penh. The country is, on the whole, much the same as when I left; cold, expensive, obsessed with competitions on the television (cooking, baking cakes, auctioning antiques, running guesthouses – practically every sphere of human existence can be turned into a tv competition). I don’t miss it much.

But it’s little things I’ve been noticing. In Phnom Penh most shopping is done in the local markets, which are piled high with dazzling pyramids of fruit and buckets full of miserable looking fish. But there a few supermarkets. I try my best to avoid them, as I loathe shopping, but occasionally I have to venture in, and I don’t enjoy it. They remind me of a post-apocalyptic morgue: they smell a bit off, somehow, like a gang of rats have died under a chiller cabinet. The shelves are thinly stocked with mystery brands of Vietnamese cornflakes and deformed cuts of unappetising-looking meat. Underworked and almost certainly underpaid young women lurk at every aisle corner, being bored. The fruit is shabby, the beer expensive and the lights too dim.

So on my first day back in the UK, I drove my mother to the local Tesco supermarket on the outskirts on town. And was astonished. Vast and gleaming, packed to the rafters with goods, I was truly staggered by the sheer amount of stuff to buy. The fruit bears no relation to seasonality; Washington State cherries, Guatemalan avacados, Kenyan guavas, and fascinatingly bizarre hybrids like nectarcots, which are a cross between nectarines and apricots. Ready meals of every possible type crowd the shelves, chocolate and butter and pies and crisps and cereals, curries and beans and cake, ice cream and pizzas and sandwiches, all rising up to the ceilings in a sleek cornucopia of branded consumerist decadence.

Most people in Cambodia don’t get enough to eat. Unicef says that 45% of Cambodian children show signs of moderate or severe stunting. If we imagine that Phnom Penh’s 1.5 million people need between 2,100 calories (women) and 2,700 calories (men) per day, that means that Phnom Penh needs some 3.6 billion calories of food energy per day. There were far more calories that that on the shelves of one mid-sized Tesco. It makes my mind boggle.

Another thing that struck me, is that people here are actually quite nice; generally polite, helpful and accommodating. I’m sure it wasn’t like that when I left. I remember groups of young men spitting on the pavement and staring covetously at my mobile phone, 13-year-old girls trying to mug me in the street at 3:00 am, berks with BlackBerrys knocking me off the pavement, shouty drivers; there was a general depressing rudeness and lack of civility about the place. But this time, no one has been casually rude or aggressive; on the contrary, train staff, bus drivers, shop assistants, pedestrians, bar staff and waiters – all have been great. Perhaps a few years of economic depression have knocked some of the edges off people, and convinced that its nicer to be pleasant,especially if you work in a service industry. But that seems a bit facile. Perhaps it’s just me.

But I’m still not moving back.

Rough justice

April 24, 2014

As someone who has had a number of encounters with the Cambodian legal system, and expects to have a fair few more, I was somewhat encouraged by the following story, which appeared in the Cambodia Daily. It seems to show that no matter what you do, you can expect to get away with it.

“Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday handed down a one-year suspended sentence to a 31-year-old Chinese man and fined him two million riel, or about $500, two days after he crashed his SUV into a garbage truck while drunk and gravely injured a young trash collector, court and police officials said.

The 19-year-old victim, Yin Reach, remains in critical condition with serious injuries to his legs, groin and kidneys after the Chinese man, Tuan Tao, crushed him between the truck and the front of his luxury vehicle on Sunday.

Witnesses reported that Tao was driving a car with Royal Cambodian Armed Forces license plates.

The victim has opened his eyes but is unable to move or speak and will likely never walk again, according to his brother.

“The doctor told us that my brother has broken the bones in his thighs, knees and pelvis, and damaged his groin and kidneys, while he lost a lot of blood because the arteries in his legs were cut.”

Hurrah for justice! Although you might have to be Chinese, and driving a RCAF-plated car, if you expect to get it.

I have high hopes of Cambodia’s justice system. A one-year suspended sentence and a $500 fine for crippling a young man whilst drunk? I’m laughing…




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