Kampottering around

October 31, 2014

I’m sitting writing this in the sleepy riverside town of Kampot, one of my favourite places in all of Cambodia. I spent much of the day interviewing disabled infants, which makes for a torrid time, quite frankly, so now I’m relaxing with a stiff gin and tonic and watching the sun set in a blaze of orange and crimson behind Bokor Mountain, watching the fishing boats chug out to sea down the broad pewter expanse of the Kampot River, and starting to feel a bit better.

Kampot is a magical town. I’m not the only person who thinks so: the place is rammed full of expats who’ve moved here to take advantage of the balmy climate, laid-back atmosphere and laughably cheap cost of living. Every evening on the riverside, where I’m currently sitting, the locals and the expats take a passeggiata, slowly, to watch the sun set; many of the expats, though, ride huge Harleys. Truth be told, many of the expats are balding, paunchy, middle-aged European men. I don’t really know why this should be, but it is.

Mostly, the Europeans run bars, of which there are an inordinate number. And most of them are largely empty, this being Cambodia during the rainy season. But I wonder if some of them have imported something strange to this little piece of paradise. The hotel I’m staying at has the radio playing in the lobby and the bar. Which would be fine, except that they’re playing BBC Radio 2, live from the UK.

Now, if you’re not familiar with Radio 2, that might not seem too objectionable. But trust me, it is. Radio 2 is where dreams go to die; the home of hairpieces and ironed jeans, of middle-class, middle-income, middle-life Britons. Radio 2 is purely British, in that it’s solidly turgid, like chip butties and Dralon sofa covers, like EastEnders, like sharing bathwater, like Alan Partridge. I left the UK shortly after I accidentally overheard Radio 2 playing Paranoid by Black Sabbath, and I discovered that my entire rebellious childhood had been traduced and co-opted by a race to the median.

So it’s very odd to sit on the banks of the Kampot River, watching geckos chase across the ceilings, smelling barbecueing pork and revolting fish, and listening to some Smashey & Nicey clone talking about roadworks on the M25 and congratulating Ian and Mabel from “beautiful Portsmouth” on a happy 56th wedding anniversary.

A rat has just run past my table. That’s what I came for.

But I suspect that’s just me. Not drowning. Just waving.

Engineering change

October 21, 2014

Last week, I was on my way to Kampot province on business with a colleague. He picked me up early in the morning, and we were wending our merry way south, when the car started making ominous noises, and the engine began cutting out. We managed to make our way to what I was told was a garage, and a number of teenagers made their way over, and began the age-old ritual of sucking on their teeth while staring at our engine.

So I resigned myself to uncountable hours of sitting around. And so it came to be.

But unlike many garages where I’ve spent time, this one was quite fascinating. For a start, most of the tools seemed to be made of refashioned lengths of rebar. It was even filthier than most Western garages. And there was no electricity.

Despite all this, they guys had the cylinder head off in a couple of minutes. In between rounds of tooth-sucking, various people headed off on extremely lengthy moped journeys to pick up new accelerator couplings and head gaskets. Eventually, all the right spares appeared, and a few minutes later the engine was purring away nicely. It was quite a feat of skill and ingenuity. Our trip was ruined, but it was an education into what you can do with practically nothing at all.

I was thinking about this as I watched, at some length over the past couple of weeks, the erection of a couple of extra storeys on the building next door to ours. Lorries keep turning up laden with bricks, which have to be unloaded by hand, two at a time, by large gangs of labourers. This takes a full day for each truckload: a job that with pallets and a forklift would take less than five minutes. Then the bricks are stuffed into sacks and carried on to the roof, which is another full day per load. It’s the same with sand. It makes me weep at the inefficiency of it all, but, of course, it employs a lot of people, which is a good thing.

And the health and safety! Kids in their mid-teens in nothing but sunglasses, jeans and flip-flops hanging from one leg upside down 60 feet up while tack welding. I truly can’t watch.

Yet this country, despite its technological limitations, has more Sim cards per capita than anywhere else on earth (I’ve been told). Even Blossom has two. And after dark, the labourers, who all sleep on the roof amongst the piles of sand and bricks and cement, all play with their mobile phones, the little silvery lights sparkling like a shoal of fish through the darkness. It’s most odd.

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

 

Updikeiana

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.

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