Courting disaster

September 23, 2015

Well, imagine my surprise! A delegation of international legal experts from the International Bar Association has found that Cambodia’s judiciary is riddled “with endemic corruption, bribery and political influence,” and has recommended the IBA reconsider Cambodia’s bar association’s membership in the international body.

The IBA found Cambodia’s judiciary is, at all levels, rife with corruption, while cases are overwhelmingly decided based on bribes or political influence.

Dr Philip Tahmindjis of the IBA said the level of judicial corruption in Cambodia was “staggering.” He went on: “We have seen a lot of corruption in other countries, but nothing on the endemic level that appears to be going on here.”

Another member of the IBA told a local newspaper: “We tried to find the names of judges who were independent minded and who don’t accept bribes. We got one anecdote from one very admirable lawyer who said that he had dealt with a judge who he knew hadn’t accepted a bribe and he thought the judge had ruled on the merits of his case. That was one lawyer, and he said it had happened to him once.”

The President of the Bar Association of Cambodia, Bun Honn, declined to comment, saying he had yet to see the report.

Suffer the little children

September 9, 2015

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been travelling around Cambodia talking to orphans, for the annual sponsorship reports sent to people who stump up a small monthly amount of cash via the charity I work for, to help pay for a child’s basic needs: rice, soap, cooking oil, salt, washing powder, education and so forth.

Oddly, most of the children aren’t actually orphans: their parents have given them up as they’re too poor to look after them. Which makes my mind boggle a bit. The children range in age for about six to 19. Some of them are very disabled and will never live an independent life; others are bright and motivated and bursting with life and enthusiasm, waiting to get out into the world and become engineers and dentists and translators.

One orphanage is set up for kids with HIV, which you might imagine would be rather bleak, but the children are so funny and playful that they’re a delight to be around, even if it’s only for half-an-hour or so each once a year. They’re clean and just-about fed, and all of them are provided with anti-retroviral drugs. Nevertheless, two of them had died of AIDS-related illnesses since I saw them last year, which was a bit of a shock.

Orphanages here in Cambodia can be snakepits. Unscrupulous locals set them up, look for poor children, take them off their parents and open their doors to tourists who want to coo at the little people and hand over donations, which quickly disappear into the owner’s pockets. The government occasionally bust one of these when the children’s conditions get too bad, but it’s rare. Even worse is when a predatory paedophile from the West arrives and sets up an orphanage, giving him ready access to lots of delightful little children. It happens more than you think.

Of course, all the orphanages I deal with operate at the very highest standards and with the utmost probity. But that can be a rarity in this country. Travelling around the provinces with my colleague Saroen, it was fascinating to hear first-hand about the corruption so many people here take utterly for granted. Like which chains of petrol stations are owned by which government minister’s wife and so pay no tax. Or how that police car (pointing at a proper police car) is actually a fake, and is used for transporting illegal luxury wood to dealers in Vietnam. It was quite an eye-opener.

But later, sitting by a quiet village pond watching swifts dart across the skies and the vast thunderheads well up in the far distance across the perfect deafening green of the Cambodian countryside, or sitting in a roadside shack at dusk eating boiled corncobs and watching out for rock pythons, it seems like there are probably far worse places to be.

Unless you support the Cambodian football team, who lost 0-6 last night to Syria. Syria! Go Angkor Warriors!

Don’t call me, Ishmael

August 28, 2015

Well, the game is up. Our revels now are ended. The second shoe has dropped. Starbucks is coming to Cambodia.

The US-based coffee giant has announced it is to open its first outlet at Phnom Penh airport by the end of this year, with plans to open a second store in the city centre by the end of 2016. Starbucks already has more than 22,000 outlets around the world.

Whether Cambodia needs Starbucks is a matter of some debate. There is no shortage of coffee shops in Phnom Penh: there are probably 60 shops within a 15-minute walk of where I sit. Most of them, especially the locally-owned and entirely estimable Brown Coffee, offer a far superior product to Starbucks’s bitter, over-roasted nonsense and expensive and tasteless sandwiches and buns.

Is it a sign of progress that Starbucks is coming? It joins the likes of Costa Coffee, KFC, Burger King and Dairy Queen in clogging the streets, and the arteries, of Phnom Penh. Sure, it’ll provide a few jobs for bored students, but with all the profits winging their way back to the States, does Cambodia need it? A friend of mine used to be friends with Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks, and would come back from dinner with him raving about his numerous Picassos. Schultz is worth over a billion dollars. I expect Cambodia will propel him even further up the rich list.

A spokesman for the company, with the unwieldy title of Group President, China/Asia Pacific, Channel Development and Emerging Brands, issued a statement saying: “Cambodia is a vibrant country with a rich cultural heritage, and we are proud to bring the unparalleled Starbucks Experience to this market.” Yes, he actually did write “Starbucks Experience.” It makes my soul weep.

A few years ago, The Onion ran a spoof piece on US bookseller Barnes & Noble opening a branch in Cambodia. “Speaking from Barnes & Noble’s New York headquarters, John Day, company vice-president in charge of overseas expansion, said that Cambodia represents an outstanding new market for the book chain. “Cambodia has all the signs of being a book-friendly country,” Day said. “Did you know that only one Cambodian in 10,000 has a television set? That, to me, is the hallmark of a literate culture.””

Now all we need is Macdonald’s to arrive, and we’ll have the full house of soulless corporate behemoths jostling small local businesses aside and expanding their bland cultural hegemony over this once-proud nation. Oh, the joy…

Welcome, Thunder Dragons!

August 26, 2015

I’m not particularly interested in sports. I maintain a passing interest in the fortunes of the mighty Fulham Football Club and in the England football team. I’ll watch the Ashes, and maybe the Wimbledon final. But otherwise, I find professional sport pointless and boring. In my final year at school, I managed to wrangle playing pool as my option for PE – that was a very good year.

The last time I watched an international football match in the flesh was in Nairobi in about 1987: it was Kenya vs someone like Egypt in the African Cup of Nations. I was travelling around East Africa with a girlfriend, and we thought it would be fun to watch. It was not. Just after half time, all the lights in the stadium went out, and the entire 40,000-strong crowd decided it would be a good idea to start running, en masse, round and round the stadium, in silence. When we managed to make our way out, the fans were rioting, turning over cars and setting them on fire and looting shops. It was a torrid night, to say the least. I don’t know who won, and, quite frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Recently, Cambodia have been doing quite well at football, making it into the second round of the World Cup qualifiers, for the first time ever. So far, they’ve lost to Singapore, 0-4, and Afghanistan. But big crowds have been turning out to watch them, in a triumph of hope over experience for a team rated 180th in the world. So when it was announced that they would play a friendly against Bhutan, I thought I should go and have a look.

Bhutan (population 750,000) are generally rated as the worst team in the world, swapping 209th place occasionally with Montserrat (population 4,500). However, they’ve been on a bit of a streak recently, going up to 164th, after beating Sri Lanka. Since then, they’ve lost 0-6 to China and 0-7 to Hong Kong. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to watch two of the world’s worst teams play each other.

As football matches go, it was pretty tiresome, as was probably to be expected. But the crowds were great: happy, non-violent and sober, unlike back in the UK, and completely lacking the terrible miasma of pies and stale beer that is so prevalent at matches in England. Whole families were there, cheering Cambodia lustily: there was no chanting or swearing, no racist or homophobic insults; just a lot of people cheerfully supporting their national team.

I didn’t see any Bhutan fans in the crowd, probably because there are no Bhutanese living in Cambodia, as far as I know. I was one of the very few non-barang in the stadium, so was interviewed live on national TV, and was able to pontificate on Bhutan’s lack of penetration and how Cambodia should work the channels better, thanks to my sterling work with Angkor Beer.

The Vann Molyvann-designed Olympic Stadium is an impressive sight, although it is supposed to hold 50,000 people, whereas I can’t imagine more than about 15,000 squeezing in. The walkways behind the stands were full of women barbecuing pork and ears of corn, and people selling a large number of heavy wool Cambodia scarves (motto: “You’ll never walk alone”).

Cambodia won, 2-0, and everybody was happy (except me, because I secretly wanted Bhutan to win). Cambodia play Syria next, in early September, and I might well go along to that as well.

Except that I probably won’t, because it’s still pretty boring.

Oh, Canadia!

August 17, 2015

When I first came to Cambodia, in about 2008, I stayed at Raffles, the city’s grandest and most venerable hotel. I had a suite on the second floor, and from my balcony I could look out across the city, and actually see most of it. I couldn’t remember coming across such a low-rise city: most of the buildings were only a few floors high at most.

There was, unusually for a capital city in the twenty-first century, only one skyscraper, the 32-storey Canadia Tower, which was right in the middle of my view. It is not a pretty building: it looks as if someone has rammed a large, square-barreled syringe into the earth.


Over the years I’ve been here, I’ve come to rather like Canadia Tower. Although it’s an office building, it has almost no tenants. The Cambodian Stock Exchange was located on two floors for a while, and the offices were pleasantly empty, there being only one stock to trade (and practically no one ever did). Once the exchange doubled in size, to two stocks, they moved out into a converted mansion nearby, which I should imagine is still as quiet as a tomb.

But Canadia Tower was, for years, a highly useful landmark in Phnom Penh. You could tumble out of a bar and instantly orient yourself. You could tell tuk-tuk drivers that you were going somewhere near the tower. They would switch the lights on the roof off at 2230hrs, if the geezer at the switch remembered, so you could get a rough idea of the time. From the balcony of my flat, you could watch planes coming in on the Western Track to Poechentong Airport fly at precisely the same spot through the line of the building.

But, as I’ve said before, Phnom Penh is undergoing a property bubble, and high-rises are going up all over the place. Everywhere you look, pretty old houses are being ripped down and ugly multi-storey apartment blocks are going up. There was a lovely little wooden house I looked at the other day with an eye on renting: last week they tore it down and a 10-storey monstrosity is going up in its place.

And just last week, I wandered out onto my balcony to see that a new tower block was about to hide Canadia Tower from my view.

Bye-bye Canadia Tower! (Vatican Tower to the right.)

Bye-bye Canadia Tower! (Vattanac Tower to the right.)

Obviously I’m delighted that Phnom Penh is developing. But I’m still mystified by who’s going to live in all of these apartment blocks. Most Cambodians can’t afford to. People say the Chinese are buying them to rent out, but to rent out to whom? I’ve looked around a few of these developments, and they are, uniformly, grim.

Copyright: When Asia Meets Asia

Copyright: When Asia Meets Asia

Canadia Tower is no longer the tallest building in Cambodia. DeCastle Royal, Olympia Towers and Gold Tower 42 are all higher. Gold Tower 42 has stood unfinished since the last global property crisis, like an abscessed tooth in an otherwise attractive smile. The country’s tallest building, Vattanac Tower is apparently finally finished, three years behind schedule. It is mostly empty. There is apparently a Hugo Boss shop in there: I haven’t been.

Finally: I don’t usually post about Cambodian grammatical infelicities in English, but this sign made me laugh.


Approaching dry land

July 27, 2015

Some things in life bore me to distraction. Talking about taxes, for instance, is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s bad enough having to pay them: to devote any more time than that to them seems crazed. Which might explain why my finances could best be described as chaotic.

Another thing that bores me is the weather. Weather happens; there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just deal with it. Listening to weather forecasts makes my eyes glaze over with tedium. I’m with Proust’s narrator’s friend M. Bloch, who famously said: “Sir, I am absolutely incapable of telling you whether it has rained. I live so resolutely apart from physical contingencies that my senses no longer trouble to inform me of them.”

I live in a country where it rains a lot, and yet I don’t own an umbrella or a raincoat. Or at least, I live in a country where it usually rains a lot. But not, so far, this year. This year, the rains have been noticeable only by their sporadic and infrequent nature. And that’s beginning to worry me.

A technical adviser with the Mekong River Commission says the entire country has been suffering from “really bad drought” since the end of last year. “It’s as bad as it’s ever been,” he told a local newspaper. “The whole country is in drought, so is Vietnam, so is Thailand.” Wells and rivers have already dried up; people are having to spend their scarce cash on bottled water. People who have been out in the provinces report browning and desiccated rice crops in the paddies.

A lecturer in environmental studies told another paper: “Farmers who depend on rain-fed farming to grow their crops are going to face more disasters.” Rice production is expected to decline, leading to the migration of farmers to look for work in urban areas. Increased pressure will be put on urban infrastructure; food prices will escalate; malnutrition will be common.

The Ministry of Water Resources issued a notice in May, saying that heavy rain was not expected to begin until July. Well, July is pretty much over, and the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers are well below their usual levels for this time of year. Usually, in July and August, you curse the skies as they fill the streets ankle-deep with foul and fœtid water: not this year.

The rains could still come. And Cambodia has lived through droughts before, often contiguous with the occurrence of the El Niño warm water system in the eastern Pacific. But it is worth noting that the Angkor temple complex, the world’s largest pre-industrial city, the glory of Cambodia, is thought to have been abandoned due to drought in the early 15th century. So I hope people are taking this seriously. Because it’ll be dull if they’re not.

A Sok Bun fight

July 19, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, local Cambodian property tycoon Sok Bun was having a quiet dinner in a Japanese restaurant with two local women and his bodyguard. Towards the end of the evening, he began to become frustrated that his not necessarily inconsiderable charms weren’t having the desired effect upon the ladies, and he began to become more insistent in his demands for some form of intimacy.

Real estate tycoon Sok Bun

Real estate tycoon Sok Bun

In an effort to rein in Sok Bun’s overenthusiasm, one of the ladies threw a mobile phone at him. He rather took offence at this, and responded by attacking the woman, slamming her head against the floor, kicking and pounding her skull and punching her, for some time. A terrified waiter tried to intervene, but was stopped by Sok’s bodyguard, who was waving a pistol at the head of the victim. Eventually, Sok was pulled off, and out of the restaurant.

Now, normally in Cambodia, this wouldn’t be an event of much note. Sok Bun is hugely wealthy, is an okhna (an honorific awarded to anyone who has given the government more than $100,000) and was chairman of the Cambodia Valuers and Estate Agents Association. He is precisely the sort of person who can get away with beating like a gong whomsoever he wishes.

Of all the terrible people in this lovely little country, property developers are probably the worst. The astronomical amounts of money to be made in the country’s overheating property market seem to attract a special type of scumbag, with thousands of families violently evicted from their makeshift homes for pointless building projects, shootings and stabbings, and even the throwing of venomous snakes into people’s houses to encourage them to move. All of this is widely accepted here.

But Sok Bun’s victim, in this case, was a bit savvier than usual. She managed, when she got out of hospital, to get CCTV footage of the attack, and she posted it on Facebook, where it quickly went viral. The victim is a well-known Cambodian TV personality known as Ms Sasa, and she wasn’t going to take this lying down. Already she has turned down two offers from Sok, of $40,000 and then $100,000, to drop the case, saying she wants justice, not money.

Sok Bun had, by this time, fled to Singapore, which probably isn’t the best place in the region to go if you want to escape the rule of law. He claimed to be suffering from some unspecified illness. But even Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen weighed in, saying: “Don’t think that because you have money you can escape,” and Sok flew back to Phnom Penh on Saturday, where he was arrested at the airport, and is now languishing in Prey Sar jail, awaiting trial. If Hun Sen has taken against him, then it’s not looking good.

Sok’s slightly unlikely arrest follows the April capture of another okhna, Thong Sarath, in Vietnam, for the murder of yet another okhna. While one shouldn’t take any pleasure from the sight of these fine, upstanding entrepreneurs starting to fight each other like rats in a sack, one has to wonder whether, with the resurgence of the opposition CNRP, they can see a day when impunity might not be automatic. One certainly hopes so.

Sok Bun's latest project, the $500 million The Bay hotel and apartment complex. It has been suggested that he also be arrested for crimes against architecture.

Sok Bun’s latest project, the $500 million The Bay hotel and apartment complex. It has been suggested that he also be arrested for crimes against architecture.

I’ve just got back to Phnom Penh after spending a couple of days in Bangkok with my absurdly generous and lovely brother. Although I’m less a fan of ‘Bangers’ since it became a proper world city, and not a collection of tin shacks on a bend in the river, as I used to know it, it is a surprisingly lovely place. People say that Phnom Penh is like Bangkok 20 years ago; I can’t really see that to be true. Phnom Penh will have to come a long way in the next two decades if it’s going to have a McDonalds’ or a 7-11 on every street corner – not that they’re particular signs of civilisation, of course.

We were staying at the Westin, which was extremely civilised. I had a suite big enough to park my Lear Jet in, if I hadn’t had to sell it to pay the taxi driver to take me into town. My brother had brought a number of gifts from the US, including a little stuffed pig for Harley the Wonder Dog, which he had been assured in the pet shop was indestructible. (It turns out to be highly destructible if you’re Harley.) I put the pig on one of any number of dressers; when I came back to the room later, housekeeping, thinking it might be lonely, had made a bunny rabbit out of a small towel and some orchid petals, and put them together. I thought that was a nice touch.


On the first night we ate at a restaurant called Gaggan, which has just been voted as the 10th best restaurant in the world. It was quite an experience. We had the 24-course tasting menu, which is basically Indian food via molecular gastronomy, or molecular masala as someone called it, with lots of dry ice and intense half-remembered flavours, newly imagined. It was sensational, although I was flagging a bit by the time we got to course 20 or so.

The second night, we went to Nahm (number 22 on the world’s best restaurant list) and had god knows how many courses: probably a dozen or so. It was also stunning, although the chilli became a bit overwhelming towards the end, and (whisper it) Asian restaurants don’t do good desserts.

After that, it was back to reality: a budget flight back to Phnom Penh, a tuk-tuk through the rutted muddy streets and a cheese sandwich at home with Blossom and the dog. Bangkok is astonishing, but there’s really no place like home.

A thin blue line

June 9, 2015

The police in Cambodia are, to be honest, a dismal organisation. Badly paid, trained and equipped, they’re usually to be found lying in the shade at the side of major roads, occasionally getting up to extort bribes from random innocent motorists. Otherwise, they’re an irrelevance.

Unless, that is, you like smoking shisha pipes, in which case they can be an unmitigated menace. Last weekend, Phnom Penh police arrested 80 people for smoking shisha in two nightclubs, held them for 24 hours, ‘educated’ them and then told their parents. All of those arrested were over the age of 18, so were adults. But they had to be released into the care of their parents. I know that shame is an important part of the societal glue that holds Asian cultures together, but this seems ridiculous.

While it is certainly true that smoking a hookah is illegal in Cambodia since last year, bringing the parents of adults into the situation is insane, and deeply troubling. A chap called Brigadier General San Sothy told a local newspaper: “We educated them and made an agreement with their parents to guarantee they would not use shisha again,” he said. “The majority of the parents did not know that their children used shisha.”

Miscreants brought to book. Streets now safe.

Miscreants brought to book. Streets now safe.

Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen, an unrepentant tobacco smoker, said young Cambodians were skipping school to smoke sisha, and the tobacco could be laced with other drugs such as opium. “Parents are concerned by this,” the prime minister said. Well, it might be a thought, perhaps, to crack down on the import of opium. But that’s never going to happen in the Medellin on the Mekong, is it?

Meanwhile, the National Military Police are a somewhat different matter. They mean business. They made the news earlier this year when the head of the NMP was caught on tape urging his troops to follow his lead and learn from Adolf Hitler. These are the same troops that shot and killed five unarmed garment workers the previous year.

The head of the Military Police, one Sao Sokha, who is also the head of the Football Federation of Cambodia, was recently approached by a journalist, who wanted to ask him about the FFC’s support for FIFAs appalling Sepp Blatter.

After refusing to confirm whether the FFC voted for Blatter in the recent presidential ballot, the general said: “We are not thieves with them, and we are not involved with them.” He then went on to add: “My point of view is that I hate The Cambodia Daily.”

Cambodia is ranked 178th out of 209 FIFA member states.

According to FIFA website, it has paid for five projects in Cambodia since 2000, including the construction of the FFC’s headquarters, which cost $440,000, three projects at the country’s football training facility in Takeo province, for just under $1.5 million, and the resurfacing of the Olympic Stadium, which cost $500,000. Cambodia also receives $250,000 a year from FIFA for ‘development.’

Last night, I was going for a sunset drink with an old friend, and I decided to take Harley the Wonder Dog with me. I took a tuk-tuk to the north-west corner of the Royal Palace, so he could have a bit of a walk, down to the riverside; as I got out of the tuk-tuk it began to rain, hard.

We walked slowly along the wall of the palace, sheltering as best we could from the monsoon rain, coming in from the south, in the lee of the wall. By the time we got to the end of the wall, we were both soaked, but still had a couple of hundred yards of open ground to cover, so I decided to lean up against the wall and watch for a bit.

As we stood there, casually watching the world go by, I heard a crack above me and looked up. And saw a vast tree branch falling directly at us. With my well-known ninja skills coming to the fore, I kicked the dog away from me, and about a billionth of a second later this humungous branch sailed past our heads and smacked into the pavement.

I thought the dog was dead. Luckily he was not. But another two inches, and it would have broken his back like a breadstick. Another two inches the other way, and it would have pulverised my skull. I don’t want to exaggerate, but this branch was six or seven inches across at its thickest, must have been fifteen feet long and weighed a couple of hundred pounds, and fell about 40 feet. We were incredibly lucky (also, ninja).

It was, incidentally, at almost precisely the same spot where Harley spotted a snake a few weeks ago, oiling its way across the pavement. We went over to take a closer look, and the snake, which was green and about three feet long, rather took against this, and got all attack-y, which I thought was a bit much. Luckily Harley was on the leash, so I pulled him away, or the morning would have become something of a veterinary nightmare.

I had just been reflecting about accidental death that morning when reading about the ferry sinking in China; one moment you’re cheerfully asleep: the next and you’re trying to breathe the Yangtze in the dark. Luckily, I thought, that’s unlikely to happen to me, as I live a very sober and quiet life. When I was younger, however, like most young men, I did any number of colossally dangerous stuff, often involving shotguns, motorbikes, feral bulls, rock faces, agricultural machinery, chemicals and alcohol. But I grew up, and stopped practically all the bad shit. Now, apart from taking tuk-tuks on the streets of Cambodia, I do nothing dangerous at all: I am old and wise and careful.

And yet, in the last three years, I’ve been hospitalised for a week and spent six months on crutches after simply walking down the street. And was hit by a rogue motorbike. And now was almost turned into human pâté like something from out of The Omen. I’m not sure that Cambodia is any more dangerous than anywhere else, but sometimes it feels that way.

And still on the subject of stuff I don’t know: I’d always thought I knew quite a lot about British rock music of the 1970s. But a few days ago I discovered that a host of British music luminaries held a series of concerts to benefit Cambodia in 1979, and I’d never heard of it.

Organised by the unlikely duo of Paul McCartney and former-Nazi UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea were held between Christmas and the New Year at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. They featured, amongst others, The Who, The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Queen, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Specials, The Pretenders, Wings, and a band of all-stars organised by McCartney, which included John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, and saw John Bonham’s last-ever British appearance.


The concert was released on vinyl only, in 1980, and has never been re-released. Allmusic says of the vinyl recording: “The audio quality is shabby; nothing leaps out as being more sonically interesting than a live radio broadcast, and the performances are okay but not staggering.”

Like everything else in life, it is available on Youtube, but I haven’t watched it yet, because it starts with Queen, and I’d really rather stab myself in the face with a radioactive knife than watch Queen. Or perhaps take the dog out for a walk.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 85 other followers