From Russia with love

February 18, 2015

Following on from my last post, about uppity foreigners getting kicked out of Cambodia, there is a bunch of barangs who seem to be in no danger of getting expelled, and that’s the Russians who live in the grubby little coastal town of Sihanoukville. Quite why Sihanoukville attracts so many dubious Russians is beyond me, but the local authorities certainly don’t seem to discourage them.

A major feud, between two well-known Russian figures in Sihanoukville, began in late November last year, when another Russian, one Denis Valov, was jailed for killing a high school student while driving drunk. Valov reportedly worked for a locally based businessman and biologist called Nikolai Doroshenko.

Nikolai Doroshenko

Nikolai Doroshenko

Doroshenko reportedly took a phone call at the end of November from an unidentified Russian-speaking man, who wanted him to give Valov $1,000. Doroshenko sent his son Ostap to pick up the money: instead, he was badly beaten up by three Russian-looking men, and had to be airlifted to Thailand for treatment.

Ostap Doroshenko

Ostap Doroshenko

Ostap Doroshenko, despite being Russian, is a captain in the provincial Cambodian immigration police, and drives a Porsche. His father Nikolai runs a questionable restaurant and zoo in Sihanoukville, called Snake House. (I went there once, and ate a rather uncomfortable chicken Kiev on a glass-topped table with a large python underneath. It gets poor reviews on Tripadvisor, except from Russians.)

Nikolai Doroshenko has been embroiled in a dispute with a flamboyant Russian ex-billionaire called Sergei Polonsky. Forty-two-year-old property developer Polonsky, who was once one of the richest men in Russia, is wanted in Moscow on charges of embezzling $180 million. He is on Interpol’s Most Wanted list. Cambodia’s courts have repeatedly rejected requests for his extradition.

Sergei Polonsky

Sergei Polonsky

So the elder Doroshenko, and Polonsky, have been arguing for several years about the ownership of four islands near Sihanoukville, one of which Polonsky lives on, and where he conducts business seminars for backpackers when he’s not making his Cambodian workers jump off boats at knifepoint in the middle of the night.

Doroshenko has directly accused Polonsky of having his son beaten up; Polonsky responded by suing Doroshenko for $800,000. The case is proceeding at a glacial pace.

But the latest sighting of the Russian mafia in Sihanoukville occurred this weekend, when a group of Russian men demanded protection money from another Russian man who is the official tour operator for what is known as the KaZantip music festival, to be held on an island near Sihanoukville for 10 days, starting this week.

When he refused, they attacked him with guns and knives, he said. “They said that they know where I live, where my wife lives, they know about my children, and then they said that even the president of KaZantip will pay them, so why am I not paying them?” he said. He added that KaZantip organisers had been asked to pay the group $45,000 but refused, according to the Cambodia Daily.

He identified the leader of the group that attacked him as an employee of Nikolai Doroshenko. “The first one who start to shoot, he works for Mr. Doroshenko … because I saw him many times and he presented himself as chief of security for Mr. Doroshenko,” he said. Two Russians have been arrested, and the police also confiscated three air-powered guns made to look like real pistols, three Tasers, knives and steel pipes.

KaZantip Electronica Festival

KaZantip Electronica Festival

The KaZantip festival, usually held in Ukraine, is ‘notoriously debauched’, and the government has been considering banning it. For some reason, though, they have finally decided to allow it, perhaps because of the estimated 100,000 likely attendees. Or perhaps they just like Russian ravers. Who knows? But what we do know is that gangs of armed Russians and international fugitives are wreaking havoc in a sleepy coastal town, while environmental activists who want to conserve Cambodia are getting booted out of the country. Confusing, eh?


Dammed if you don’t

February 15, 2015

Monks areng

As someone who has been threatened with deportation from Cambodia for speaking out about the preservation of the country’s resources, I feel very strongly about a story that has popped up in recent days.

Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng has ordered the authorities not to renew the visa of a 34-year-old Spanish environmental activist called Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, which expires next week.

Gonzalez-Davidson works for an NGO called Mother Nature. I’ve never met him, but he seems a thoroughly balanced, sane and committed man. He has been in the country since 2002, and speaks fluent Khmer.

His NGO is trying to stop the Cambodian authorities building a hydroelectric dam in the Areng Valley in the Cardamom Mountains in the southwest of the country.

The Areng Valley, in Koh Kong province, is in the country’s last pristine natural forest. The valley is home to some 1,300 members of the ethnic Chong community, who have lived in the area for centuries. Besides their livelihoods, the Chong would lose their ancestral spirit forests and burial grounds if the area is flooded

The Areng Valley also contains the habitats of at least 30 rare and endangered animal and fish species, including the Siamese crocodile, of which there are thought to be fewer than 300 in Cambodia.

On the other hand, the hydropower project would supply some 108 MW of power. It is to be built and operated by a notably wonderful Chinese firm called Sinhydro.

“The population would be forcibly displaced to a place which, judging by the standard relocation sites we have seen in this country so far, would be equal to abject poverty and total squalor. No water, no fertile land, no access to markets, without access to traditional sources of medicine, food, construction materials,” Gonzalez-Davidson said recently.

He also dismissed Hun Sen’s promise of jobs for the families if the project went ahead. “One only has to take a visit to any of the under-construction dams in Cambodia to see that most of the jobs actually go to outsiders such as migrants from other parts of the country and hundreds of Chinese nationals … not to the population living nearby.”

But it looks as if Gonzalez-Davidson is going to be removed from the fight. Sok Phal, the director-general of immigration, said that the decision not to renew the Spaniard’s visa was made after local authorities in Koh Kong lodged a complaint about his activities.

When asked if it was because of his environmental activism, Sok replied, “Don’t ask me that. I can’t comment on it; I only do technical work.”

Koh Kong provincial governor Bun Leut said: “Alex made trouble with local authorities in Thma Bang district. He took the car of his NGO to block my deputy governor’s group who went to visit the villagers in the Areng area.” Which sounds pretty bad to me.

Ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Chheang Vun has been gunning for Gonzalez-Davidson for several months. “I am taking up measures with competent authorities to check whether that foreigner is permitted to operate in Cambodia, confront the authorities, and animate people to jostle with authorities.”

He went on: “Cambodia is too lax, it’s too easy for a foreigner to make an entire region socially unstable, and he excuses his actions by saying he is protecting the people like this or like that,” the National Assembly member said.

Gonzelez-Davidson said that there was “no doubt” that the decision to deny him visa renewal was related to his anti-dam activism. “They will have to deport me. I will throw as many eggs as I can at their face,” he said, vowing not to leave the country before his visa expires.

As award-winning Cambodian filmmaker Kalyanee Mam has said: “this is not an ‘anti’ Areng dam movement, but more a movement to protect Cambodia’s natural and spiritual heritage.”


Work permits

February 4, 2015

One of the great things about Cambodia, for a foreigner, is that it is very easy to come here, and live and work. Basically, you turn up at the airport, get a $30 business visa, and you’re all set. Within a month, you get somebody to extend your visa for 12 months for $300 or so, and repeat indefinitely. That’s why there are so many expats here, and more arriving every day, starting businesses and investing in this great little country.

But not any more. The government has decided that all foreigners here now need to have a work permit. This is causing a great deal of consternation amongst expats, as, with typical brilliance, the government doesn’t actually seem to have thought this through.

The basic, inalienable rule seems to be that if you’re here on a business visa, you need a work permit. So that’s practically everyone, except diplomats (probably). Volunteers with NGOs. Children of people working here. Retirees. Researchers. Freelancers.

The laws on work permits have been on the books since 1992, but it seems that the imminent implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of this year has pushed the government into enforcing cross-border rules to bring it into line with the rest of ASEAN. And the famously incorruptible tax department is relishing the chance to rake in more filthy lucre.

But even the government seems confused as to how it’s going to work. Asked about it, Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour seemed confused, and was forced to finally admit that he didn’t know: “I am not the head of every department,” he said.

The work permit laws say that securing a permit involves an application, photos, passport and visa copies, proof of insurance and a medical certificate issued by the Labour Ministry’s Health Department.

The health certificate has to be done by the Ministry of Labour, and has provoked a great deal of hilarity across the foreign community here. People have reported their height has been measured at six metres, their eye colour as ‘none,’ and the head of the medical department has admitted that blood tests are being conducted to detect syphilis. Which is odd.

So life may well become considerably more difficult here in the near future. Of course, you could pay off someone, which I’m sure many people plan to do. But not me, being an upright sort of chap. But living here without an employer is going to become increasingly tenuous. Watch this space.

Burning up

January 30, 2015

I was going to write about going to a Burns Night Supper last weekend.

I thought that I could get an elegant little piece out of it about the cultural dissonance involved in being in Cambodia and watching a bunch of men in skirts loudly declaiming about “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beasties” and “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face/ Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!”  while eating a sheep’s stomach filled with lungs and entrails. But, on reflection, I decided that it’s a pretty weird thing to do wherever you are: even in Scotland. And, to be honest, my memories of the event are a little hazy. (I was apparently found at the end of the evening with my head on a table, fast asleep.)

A somewhat more troubling import from abroad is an admiration of the life and work of Adolf Hitler.

Cambodia’s National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha attracted justified criticism after he told his subordinates at a meeting in Phnom Penh last week that he “learned” from the Nazi dictator.

Sokha’s comments were apparently made amid speeches defending the authorities’ deadly crackdown on protests last January, which saw five people shot dead.

Sokha quickly backtracked, saying said his comments had been misunderstood, and that while he acknowledged that he “raised the name of Hitler” and said that he learned from him, he said the lesson was far from inspirational.

However a tape of his remarks quickly surfaced: “Speaking frankly, I learned from Hitler. Germany, after World War I, was not allowed by the international community to have more than 100,000 soldiers, but the Nazis and Hitler did whatever so they could wage World War II.
This is the first thing.

“Secondly, I learned from the Vietnamese guerrillas to take small numbers to fight against the big, but that cannot be for winning, but to destroy them. If we want to win, we have to take big numbers to fight against the small—to fight them until they are frightened and it is finished. This is what I can say; it is not accidental, it is not  boastful. My thoughts and methods are to achieve this.”

I leave it to you to decide what you think about his attitude. I think I prefer Burns.


Having twins

January 14, 2015

Phnom Penh is getting a new twin city. I kind of like the idea of twin cities. I like the interchange of ideas and cultures, the reciprocal visits and the fostering of friendship and understanding between different peoples. But I’d always thought that the concept of twinning involved some degree of concordance between places: capital cities, like Phnom Penh, should probably twin with other capitals. But no, our latest twin is … drum roll … Lowell, Massachusetts.

A view of Lowell

A view of Lowell

Now, I’m sure Lowell is a very nice place. But, really? Obviously there are good reasons for Lowell to twin with Phnom Penh, the main one being that there are 10,000 Khmers living there, after they fled the Khmer Rouge, making it the second largest centre of Cambodians in the United States. You can see why the mayor, Rodney M. Elliott, who is currently visiting Phnom Penh, would want to lock up as many Khmer votes as he can by smiling and being nice to Cambodia. But I’m not convinced.

So I went and looked up some of Phnom Penh’s other twin cities. And it’s an odd list. Vientiane, Ho Ch Minh, Hanoi and Bangkok seem fine. I guess I can live with Shanghai, and Mandalay, Bristol and Incheon. In the US, Long Beach is in for the same reason as Lowell. But Providence, Rhode Island, and Cleveland, Tennessee? And Can Tho, Vietnam, Iloilo City in the Philippines and Changsha in China?

I think Phnom Penh is selling itself short by twinning with minor cities. Cleveland, Tennessee, wonderful as it may be, has a population of only 40,000, and is ranked as the fourteenth largest city in Tennessee. It may be famous for Tall Betsy, the Official Halloween Goblin of Bradley County, and for its annual apple festival, but less than one percent of the population is Asian. I don’t know what they were thinking.

Some other people who seem to have left their thinking caps at home were three foreign tourists who were deported yesterday, after being caught riding motorcycles in Kandal province while completely naked. The trio, two men and a woman, from Scotland, Italy and Finland, also shot video of themselves doing it, and posted it on YouTube.



“Their actions have seriously violated Cambodia’s integrity, the beautiful customs and culture of Cambodia, and Cambodian law,” said a police spokesman.

“We cannot allow them to commit pornography like this in our country.”

We all know that backpackers are clueless and badly dressed dickheads, but seriously? They’re spoiling it for the rest of us.

Roads to perdition

January 6, 2015

I used to be a big fan of Cambodian drivers, marvelling at their bravery, their willingness to exploit every inch of the road, and pavement, to get to their destination, their haughty disregard for basic road safety, their devil-may-care attitude to drinking and driving. But I’m beginning to rethink this. I have now decided that Cambodian drivers are lunatics.

I say this after having spent nearly three years negotiating Cambodia’s roads, mainly from a precarious perch in the back of a tuk-tuk. What I initially thought of as ingenious ways of driving cooperatively, turn out, on close inspection, to be merely impossibly selfish ways of trying to screw everyone else out of road space.

I’ve written about road traffic accidents before and how they’re the leading cause of death in Cambodia. They’re not, as it happens: that distinction goes to our old friends influenza, pneumonia and heart disease. RTAs come in at number 15, according to the WHO. But at least seven people die every day in car and motorbike crashes, and scores more are injured. Everyone here has a terrible story about awful accidents, and the lack of enforcement, that means that if you can afford an SUV, you can afford to pay off the police if you kill someone. And everyone also knows that if you’re involved in an accident, not to hang around, as you have a good chance of being beaten to death by angry onlookers.

The son of an acquaintance was nearly sideswiped recently by a huge black SUV at 0300hrs as he crossed a major road in Phnom Penh on foot. He had the temerity to slap the vehicle as it sped by, whereupon the car stopped, a bodyguard got out and chased him into a nearby restaurant and shot him through the buttocks. So don’t do that, either.

Another friend of mine borrowed a Porsche Panamera last weekend. (Porsche is opening a dealership here, because what this country really needs is more 160mph high-status SUVs for a population that doesn’t have to take a driving test) When he got back from a day-trip to the coast, he looked as if he’d just done six rounds with Mike Tyson. Even in a $300,000 car, driving in this country is terrifying. And he got home before dark.

But my annoyance with Cambodian drivers stems currently stems from last Sunday: I had been around the corner having a soothing sundowner at Zeppelin, and was making my way home at dusk, when some idiot on a motorcycle ran into me from behind. I’m guessing he just misjudged a gap. He shunted me several feet into the air, but luckily I managed to remain on my feet, and just have a lot of bruises on one side of my body. The idiot boy racer just managed to stay on his bike, and took off, minus half his bike’s fairing, which was lucky for him, because I had very much wanted to have a quiet word with him.

It’s a useful reminder that you can’t be too careful here, and you can’t take anything for granted. I don’t drive here; I don’t have a motorbike, and I don’t even ride a pushbike. And still, I came within a whisker of being badly hurt on the roads. Ah, what fun!

‘Tis the season

December 18, 2014

It’s that wonderful time of year in Cambodia when the temperature drops below insanity-creating levels, and it feels like you live in a sensible city. Some website tells me it was only 28 degrees here today, which is, to be honest, a bargain. Last night, I slept under a sheet. This is something that is not possible for 50 weeks out of the year.

But, for anyone who has read this blog for a while, they’ll sadly recognise this as happening at precisely the same time as last year. Seasons: ho, hum.

But it is wonderful, to walk the awful dog while not sweating to death. That’s something we have to look forward to, even at six am, next April and May (and June and July).

I’ve just finished reading Sebastian Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia, and, despite him being a friend of mine, I’m happy to say that it is a wonderful book. If you want a brilliantly well-told account of why Cambodia is how it is, now, then you need to read Strangio’s book. This is the best book that’s been written on Cambodia in the last 15 years. I’ve toyed with the idea of a decent book on modern Cambodia: Strangio has beaten me to it.

And, finally, in what is a fairly random collection of thoughts, the big story in the country this week is the discovery that at least 106 people in Battambang have been infected with HIV, after being treated (stuck with needles) by an unlicensed doctor.

In a statement headlined “HIV cases in Battambang”, the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, Unicef, the Pasteur Institute in Cambodia and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention say they are investigating “an outbreak.”

The “doctor” went on the run after the story broke, but, not being an important business figure, was quickly tracked down and arrested.

Blame is also being directed towards a system that enables people to get away with working as unlicensed doctors.

“From now on, I will stop believing in all doctors. They do not pay attention to the patients; they think about only themselves,” a local figure told a newspaper.

Early reports point to the reuse of needles as being the source of the infection.

This is especially unfair on the people who have contracted the disease: one of the few areas where Cambodia has done well is bringing down the AIDS transmission rate. Of course, it would be a lot lower if people stopped treating bar girls as sex toys, but this rash of case involves people aged between three years old and 82 years old.

Despite this, Prime Minister Hun Sen, quoted in a local newspaper, said he was “99 per cent” sure that the results are wrong. “Right now, 99 percent, I don’t believe its AIDS,” he said. “They might have a virus, but it’s not AIDS . . . Can an 80-year-old person get AIDS? And can young people who do not know anything get AIDS?”

That’s a good question.

Shooting pains

December 8, 2014

As Cambodia slips back into its usual state of torpor after the excitements of last year’s elections, local journalists are scratching around to find much to write about. At least until two weeks ago, when a local businessman was shot to death on the street, a shooting which has captivated the nation.

Businessman Ung Meng Cheu was shot six times outside a fruit shop in central Phnom Penh on November 22 and died at the scene. Security camera footage of the shooting was circulated widely, and can be seen below. However, if you don’t enjoy watching someone getting gunned down and actually dying, then I’d advise against it.

The police, moving unusually quickly, named another local tycoon called Thong Sarath as the man behind the shooting. As well has his business interests, Sarath is a deputy cabinet chief at the Ministry of Defence and one-time member of the government’s Brigade 70 military unit.

Countless allegations have been levelled against Brigade 70 since its inception, including claims of murder, fatal crackdowns and political arrests, which critics say were carried out with impunity. A 2007 report by environmental group Global Witness accused the unit of running a logging and contraband trafficking operation worth more than $2 million a year.

But Sarath has disappeared, with rumours saying that he’s fled to Vietnam. No one expects him to surface any time soon.

The police have arrested a number of his bodyguards, and charged them with the murder, after raiding a number of his houses.

In a bizarre press conference just hours before the raid, his mother, Keo Sary, defended her son from allegations of involvement in the killing.

Dripping with expensive jewellery, boasting about her family’s wealth and even at one point counting wads of banknotes, which she later handed out to journalists, Sary said her son had gone into hiding to escape arrest over a crime he did not commit.

But last night, both parents were remanded on charges of gun possession, and could face up to three years in jail.


Before their remand, Sarath’s parents emerged from questioning to apologise to Phnom Penh’s police chief, whom they had threatened to have fired for investigating their son.

This story will run and run. Local journalists are delighted.

Wardrobe malfunction

November 19, 2014

I bought some new clothes the other day. Well, actually, Blossom bought me some new clothes. And it wasn’t half bad.

Back in the UK, I used to dress quite nicely, I thought. Decent leather shoes, French cuffs and cufflinks on my Jermyn Street shirts, flamboyant silk squares peeping out of my jacket pocket, and so on. But since moving to Cambodia, things have gone a little, er, downhill.

For a start, it is far too hot to wear a jacket, so my handmade linen suits sit hopelessly in the wardrobe. It is also too hot to wear cufflinks.

Secondly, this country is filthy. For much of the year, it is incredibly dusty, chokingly turbid. I used to think that travelling on the Tube in London was bad for leaving a ring of grime around your collar: Cambodia trumps that. I can’t go to the shop on the corner without coming back without a patina of sandy orange dust caked into my pores. Most public surfaces are caked in crap: you pretty quickly learn to wash your hands if you touch any surface in this country, unless you want to die of leprosy.

So at the end of the day, my once lovely shirts are stained and unappetising. We have a washing machine, brand new, but it doesn’t seem to use hot water, so shirts and trousers come out looking only marginally better than when they went in. Which isn’t great. Weird grey stripes seem to flourish on sleeves, and collars – well, the less said the better. And then added to this is the recent addition to our household of the Brindled Beast of Chaos, or Harley, who delights in swinging off sleeves and taking random high-speed chunks out of passing trouser legs. Then there’s our former maid, who liked to wash clothes in bleach, and the fact that the country seems to be full of random sticking-out nails. Oh, and you can wear flip-flops to the office? Hell, yeah! Anyway, it all makes for an eventually pitiful wardrobe.

But, as I say, Blossom prevailed upon me to buy some new clothes. And it was great. I hadn’t found anything to wear in the shops here: not being the size of an anorexic 12-year-old, sadly. I’d had a few shirts made here, from tailors who really weren’t all that inspiring, with sleeves that came down to my knees and wonky collars. But Blossom took me to a shop called Ambre, which was fantastic.

Housed in a beautiful old colonial villa, it’s run by Cambodia’s best-known fashion designer, a woman called Romyda Keth. Most of the shop is women’s clothes: dramatic gowns and blouses and that kind of stuff, but there is a men’s section, and I could have bought practically everything. Of course, none of the stuff on the racks would have fitted anyone larger than Peter Dinklage, as far as I could see, but they offered to make anything I liked in my size, Normal Human, for no extra cost. It was the last time I can remember enjoying shopping.

So I had a fitting, and two days later picked up a couple of shirts and a couple of pairs of trousers, which fitted perfectly, all for the same cost as a single one of my shirts from London. And they are all things of extreme beauty, beautifully cut and stitched, in vivid colours and wildly stylish. So now I’m getting back to a reasonable level of sartorial elegance, I think. Or will be, if I ever actually unpack them, Because they’re almost too beautiful to wear. Ah, more problems.

Watery Festivities

November 10, 2014

Phnom Penh is situated where three major rivers meet, forming (if you squint a bit) a giant X on the map. Obviously, if you’re going to have a capital city, it makes sense to have access to fresh water and a great transport network (Only Mexico City, Riyadh and Tehran ignore this, I believe).


Of the rivers, the Mekong is the most famous, but the Tonle Sap is perhaps the most interesting. It flows out of Tonle Sap lake, the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. But twice a year, the river changes its direction of flow: from November to May, the river drains into the Mekong and thence to the sea, via Vietnam. But in the wet season, usually June to November, the Mekong instead drains northwards, up the Tonle Sap, into the lake.


The Cambodians, being a celebratory sort of people, mark the change of flow with a huge three-day festival, called, naturally enough, the Water Festival, which has just ended. It’s the first time I’ve seen it; in 2010 more than 350 people were crushed to death on a bridge in central Phnom Penh, so they cancelled it for a while (also the king died, and they had disputed elections in intervening years).

In the past, it has been hugely popular with the people of Cambodia: every major town sends a boat to compete in the dragonboat races, and the population of Phnom Penh was estimated to double with the influx of visitors, by about two million extra people. This year, the numbers were down quite markedly: a lot of people wouldn’t let their children come, because of the 2010 stampede. So rather than a terrible crush, crowds were manageable, and it was a happy and relaxed occasion.


Blossom and I managed to score up a rather magnificent flat on the riverside overlooking the races, and we drank beer in the shade and watched the 240 teams, often with 80 people on a boat, pounding up and down the Tonle Sap. It was colourful and faintly soporific, and a genuinely pleasant experience. Crowds milled around, vendors dodged police patrols to sell noodles and cakes and fruit, bands played and there were Ferris wheels and kickboxing displays and fireworks and everyone drank far too much and a good time was had by all.

But on the second morning, it was my turn to walk the awful dog, so I was up at dawn, being dragged around the riverside. And I was genuinely appalled to see the gangs of street cleaners collecting huge mounds of trash – the concept of recycling not having entirely caught on here yet – and pushing them straight into the river, to be carried off to the sea. It didn’t seem so much fun after that. [Sigh…] Oh, Cambodia…


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