Driving me mad

February 21, 2013

I was appalled and baffled in equal measure earlier this week, when I heard the news that German sports car maker Porsche is planning to open a showroom in Phnom Penh early next year.  A spokesman said “The Cambodian market is becoming increasingly sophisticated by the day. High-end customers are ready for our premium cars.”

High-end customers? In Phnom Penh? The roads have only recently been paved. The average wage here is less than $2 a day. And in the rainy season, the water will be above the sills of the cars, which, as everybody knows, are preening tosser-mobiles, driven by the sort of genitally disadvantaged middle-aged oafs who give mid-life crises a bad name.

It’s bad enough that Porsche thinks they’ll make money here, and can move it back to Germany to give to their shareholders, but the sad fact is that they’re probably right, and the look-at-me culture that surrounds the super-rich here will probably sucker enough relatives of kleptocrats to stump up for the grisly two-seater blingfest, in a country where five to a moped is the most common form of transport.

It does seem cruel to really flaunt your wealth by driving a 200-mile-per-hour car amongst the potholes in a 20-mile-per-hour city. Perhaps it’s aspirational?

Close to where I work, is a car showroom, all glass walls and sleek steel fittings, which houses a bunch of luxury cars. I’d noticed that the cars didn’t seem to change very much, so in the end I decided to investigate. And it turns out that it’s not a showroom at all, but a private garage, and all the cars are owned by one man.

As it happens, they all belong to Srey Sothea, the head of a local real estate company called 7NG.  When I peered in through the windows earlier today, there was a Hummer, a Smart Roadster, a Dodge Charger, a Porsche Boxter, a Ferrari ($380,000) and a Mercedes SLS ($600,000).


Srey reportedly comes to pick a car for a ride once or twice a week, sometimes with friends or his girlfriend. Then he’ll go for a ride around Phnom Penh. To avoid crashes that could mark the cars’ flawless exteriors, Srey apparently only travels in the centre of an armada of four motorbikes ridden by his bodyguards who make sure the roads stay clear.

“Oh,” I hear you say, “I bet he’s a really good upstanding member of society, who strives to improve the lives of his fellow men.”

Srey is fairly well known in town, not for his ostentatious and silly driving habits, but for forcefully demolishing the homes of residents after refusing to pay them any compensation for their land.

A couple of years ago 7NG Construction physically expelled 152 families in Phnom Penh’s Chamakar Mon district and tore down their homes to develop a commercial site consisting of townhouses and office space. Those residents are now homeless and living without basic necessities. One resident said “there were many authorities, police, and military police standing in front of my house … they suddenly grabbed me and beat me. They even pulled my seven-months’ pregnant wife out and pulled her hair …they beat my arm with the butt of a gun and they hit me in the jaw, which is still swollen…They kicked me all over my body until I rolled over, handcuffed me, and then pulled me to the other side of the road,” the man said.

Srey gets an award from Hu Sen

Srey gets an award from Hun Sen


You can see why Srey might think he needs to travel with bodyguards at all times.


Money for nothing

February 13, 2013

It’s just been Chinese New Year here in Phnom Penh. This has meant another long holiday, following hard on the heels of the five days set aside for the cremation of the former king last week. And then we’ve got the Khmer New Year to look forward to in mid-April, when everything shuts down again. If you like public holidays, this is a great country. (If you have to work through them, you might be a bit more ambivalent.)

One of the more popular aspects of the Chinese New Year celebrations is the practice of giving lai see (as it’s known in Cantonese), or handing out small red envelopes with cash in it to all and sundry. It was wildly popular in Hong Kong when I lived there, although I recall it was often used by drug dealers, so they could transfer their products and payments openly in public without attracting suspicion.

Here in Cambodia, the practice, and the red envelope, is called ang pao, and unsurprisingly, in such a poor country, it is also very popular. Who doesn’t want to be handed a small packet of cash? Sadly, I didn’t get any this year: in fact, I should, as a grown up, probably have been handing it out myself. [Laughs at the thought.]

Last Sunday, several thousand people, almost all of them policemen and soldiers, gathered outside one of the bloated kleptocrat mansions near my flat in central Phnom Penh, waiting to be given red packets. The uniformed soldiers and officers filling the street were there for ang pao from a lady known as “Yeay Phou,” or Grandma Phou, and they all walked away with between $7.50 and $12.50 each.

Nice, you might think. A generous old lady is rewarding loyal government employees and thanking them for their services to the country. But, to cynical eyes, there is slightly more going on than just that. Grandma Phou is actually called Choeung Sopheap, and she’s the owner of controversial land development firm called Pheapimex, as well as being the wife of ruling party senator Lao Meng Khin.

Pheapimex holds a number of economic land concessions around the country, most notably a 316,000-hectare site in Pursat province where villagers have staged a number of protests, saying their land was illegally cleared. Armed military police have been deployed to guard the concession.

Lao Meng Khin is also the owner of a company called Shukaku, which has used armed government security forces against protesters at its notorious real estate project in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak Lake area. Sadly, it’s not a lake any more, as Shukaku filled it in with sand, after violently displacing the 4,000 families that lived around its margins, with the help of armed police. Now it is “a desolate, apocalyptic landscape of sand, rubble, bulldozers and broken homes,” in the words of local rights groups.

Most people were moved 20 kilometres outside town, far away from their jobs, in a city with no public transport. Those who refused to move suffered continuous intimidation, physical violence, and arrests and detention. By the police. Who really like Grandma Phou.

A local newspaper quoted military police officer called Sieng Radin, who was waiting in the queue, as saying “we help her when problems arise, not only in Phnom Penh but also in the provinces. She loves the armed forces because she knows we protect her and she is a high-ranking official.”

Another military police officer, who said his unit worked directly for the family, said “We are military forces and we are also assistants to her. We always help with whatever she needs help with.”

Apparently more than 5,000 ang paos were handed out, which, by my calculations, is at least $40,000.

“This is our kindness, to distribute the ang paos to the armed forces because they work very hard. All of them, like the traffic police and other police, they not only work for my family but also for everyone’s families,” said a relative of Grandma Phou’s. Apparently he managed to say it with a straight face.

Whiskey and waterfalls

February 6, 2013

When I moved to Phnom Penh, I thought, and hoped, it would be the start of a prolonged period of travelling around Cambodia, and the region, getting to know this fabulous part of the world. Late-stage capitalism had other ideas, and I find myself chained to a desk, and to the city, far more than I’d like.

Last weekend, though, I got to get out on Phnom Penh, thanks to a trip organised for ‘business dignitaries and opinion formers’, a category I would honestly never have imagined myself to be part of.  Nonetheless, I said I’d go, and at some unearthly hour of the morning I found myself clambering aboard one of a fleet of minibuses to venture to the eastern province of Mondulkiri, near the border with Vietnam. Mondulkiri is the largest province in the country; its capital is called Sen Monorom. I didn’t know this, despite being here for nearly a year, which demonstrates quite how off the beaten track it is.

The trip was organised by Cambodia’s biggest bank, called Acleda, and the occasion was the opening of their 238th branch. I have an account with them; if I hadn’t, I would have opened one at the first available opportunity, because they’re truly brilliant, and very much part of the rehabilitation of this country.

So we took a six-hour drive to Sen Monorom (it used to take two days, until last year), and were launched into a huge and elaborate ceremony to mark the opening. Due, I can only imagine, to the classic beauty of my hand-made linen suit, I was asked to sit on the podium with the grown-ups, as various grandees made speeches, in Khmer, about Acleda’s capital adequacy ratios (I’m speculating) and listened to the staff sing rousing songs and perform perfectly pleasant dances in honour of the new branch.

This was followed by hours upon hours of dinner and karaoke. At one point, I counted eight cases of 18-year-old Chivas Regal being wheeled in. I don’t have much substantial to say about things after that, but I gather the evening ended with all the guests doing a Gangnam-style conga line down Sen Monorom’s main road.

The next day, we were driven around Mondulkiri, to see the sights. Waterfalls, mainly. Half of the other ‘opinion formers’ treated this as an excuse to drink heavily from the vast amount of alcohol the bank had laid on. This may have made the rather underwhelming series of riparian water/air-features more interesting: I was busy reading The Spectator in the back of my van.


Mondulkiri has a tourism department: you might be forgiven for thinking that the province is quite a tough sell. Because there’s not a lot to see, although we saw pretty much all of it. It’s hilly, sort of, and they grow avocados, pepper, strawberries, cashew nuts and coffee, which, sad to say, is utterly disgusting.

Dignitaries and opinion formers, apparently

Dignitaries and opinion formers, apparently

The highlight came at sunset when we found ourselves on one of the highest points in the province, watching the full moon rise as the sun set. Gazing out across the blasted heath, with the forests undulating below, I remembered why I’d come to Cambodia in the first place. A weekend in Sen Monorom? Yes, please. Thank you, Acleda Bank; thank you life.

Dead Soldiers

February 2, 2013

The final official mourning period for the late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk has just started: his son will light his funeral pyre on Monday afternoon; soon afterwards everyone can get back to business.


Here’s a poem I was introduced to recently, by James Fenton, written during the Cambodia Civil War of 1970-75, about lunching with the royals.


Dead Soldiers


When His Excellency Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey

Invited me to lunch on the battlefield

I was glad of my white suit for the first time that day.

They lived well, the mad Norodoms, they had style.

The brandy and the soda arrived in crates.

Bricks of ice, tied around with raffia,

Dripped from the orderlies’ handlebars.


And I remember the dazzling tablecloth

As the APCs fanned out along the road,

The dishes piled high with frogs’ legs,

Pregnant turtles, their eggs boiled in the carapace,

Marsh irises in fish sauce

And inflorescence of a banana salad.


On every bottle, Napolean Bonaparte

Pleaded for the authenticity of the spirit.

They called the empties Dead Soldiers

And rejoiced to see them pile up at our feet.


Each diner was attended by one of the other ranks

Whirling a table-napkin to keep off the flies.

It was like eating between rows of morris dancers–

Only they didn’t kick.


On my left sat the prince;

On my right, his drunken aide.

The frogs’ thighs leapt into the sad purple face

Like fish to the sound of a Chinese flute.

I wanted to talk to the prince. I wish now

I had collared his aide, who was Saloth Sar’s brother.

We treated him as the club bore. He was always

Boasting of his connections, boasting with a head-shake

Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase.

And well might he boast. Saloth Sar, for instance,

Was Pol Pot’s real name. The APCs

Fired into the sugar palms but met no resistance.


In a diary, I refer to Pol Pot’s brother as the Jockey Cap.

A few weeks later, I find him ‘in good form

And very skeptical about Chantaraingsey.’

‘But one eats well there,’ I remark.

‘So one should,’ says the Jockey Cap:

‘The tiger always eats well,

It eats the raw flesh of the deer,

And Chantaraingsey was born in the year of the tiger.

So, did they show you the things they do

With the young refugee girls?’

And he tells me how he will one day give me the gen.

He will tell me how the prince financed the casino

And how the casino brought Lon Nol to power.

He will tell me this.

He will tell me all these things.

All I must do is drink and listen.


In those days, I thought that when the game was up

The prince would be far, far away–

In a limestone faubourg, on the promenade at Nice,

Reduced in circumstances but well enough provided for.

In Paris, he would hardly require his private army.

The Jockey Cap might suffice for café warfare,

And matchboxes for APCs.

But we were always wrong in these predictions.

It was a family war. Whatever happened,

The principals were obliged to attend its issue.

A few were cajoled into leaving, a few were expelled,

And there were villains enough, but none of them

Slipped away with the swag.


For the prince was fighting Sihanouk, his nephew,

And the Jockey Cap was ranged against his brother

Of whom I remember nothing more

Than an obscure reputation for virtue.

I have been told that the prince is still fighting

Somewhere in the Cardamoms or the Elephant Mountains.

But I doubt that the Jockey Cap would have survived his good connections.

I think the lunches would have done for him–

Either the lunches or the dead soldiers.


James Fenton