May 24, 2013

During a speech a year or two ago, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced, casually, that the country plans to construct the world’s second-tallest building, the 555-metre Diamond Tower.

Most people listening thought that this was just another of Hun Sen’s flights of lunacy, like saying his son was the offspring of a wood sprite, or that his government is protecting the forests, or his general ranting and raving in his seemingly endless speeches.

They looked at the proposed destination, on reclaimed land on a small island in the river. With only two small roads leading on and off it.

They thought about how badly Phnom Penh needs 100 floors of restaurants, office buildings, hotels and five-star luxury accommodation. (Hint: It doesn’t. It has two 20-storey tower blocks, neither of which is full. And another 40-floor monster on the way.)

They thought about who might be funding it: a shady company called OCIC which is responsible for half-building lots of projects around Phnom Penh, including one of the extant mostly-empty skyscrapers.

They noted that the proposed height, 555 metres, was the same as Hun Sen’s favourite type of cigarette (Also, interestingly, it’s always used as a form of theatrical shorthand in US movies and television in telephone numbers, as being recognizably fake).

So most people thought that Hun Sen was talking through his hat, and forgot all about it. Until this week, when pictures of the proposed building were published, in my esteemed journal. And this is what is planned:

01-Diamond Tower-June03,2010

So that’s got to be a joke right? No one could possibly want to look at, live, or work in such a hideous building, which is so bad, on so many levels, that it makes North Korea’s Ryugyong Hotel look like the Taj Mahal.


But no, it turns out that hundreds of people are hard at work dumping thousands of tonnes of rock into the river, as a base for Diamond Tower. OCIC says it plans to finish the building by 2017, which is insanely optimistic. And a comparable building, Taipei 101, cost $1.8 billion a few years ago – and Cambodia just doesn’t have that kind of money.03-Diamond Tower-June03,2010

A local real estate guy explained it to me as “the investors and the rich alike always want a change in their workplace, investment areas and places to live. They always show their superiority if they have a home or office building which is most prominent.”

Off the record, people tell me that the plans are entirely unworkable and borderline deranged. It’s not as if Cambodia doesn’t have a history of building wonderfully beautiful large-scale architectural gems. And I guess there’s no harm in being optimistic and ambitious about the future of Cambodia.  Just not that joke of a design though, please.



May 21, 2013

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, was visiting Phnom Penh in April 1967, and famously turned to King Norodom Sihanouk, telling him: “I hope, one day, my city will look like this.” Having just spent the weekend in Singapore, I’m sorry to have to tell him that his wish has not come true.

I’d never been to Singapore before, having simply regarded it as a sub-tropical quasi-Fascist hellhole filled with cretinous sheeple. And it was, and it wasn’t. Obviously I was only there for a couple of days, so I’m no expert. But it was, as everyone says, clean, orderly and green. The public transport was tremendous, everywhere was air conditioned, the people were astoundingly beautiful, and there were more shops than I think I’ve ever seen anywhere. I mean, everything was a shop. I tried desperately to think of something I needed, but all I could come up with was a jar of decent mayonnaise, and then I never got round to it anyway.

I had gone to Singapore to meet my old friend Michael: let me say now that it was, thanks to him, a truly brilliant weekend; he bears no responsibility for my slight antipathy to the place, and deserves a thousand hugs for showing me things I’d never thought I’d see. As, I hope, he knows.

Singapore also has one of the best bookshops I’ve ever seen in my life (and I’ve been to a few) in the astonishing Kinokuniya, which is vast and brilliantly stocked. Luckily for me, however, the one book I could think of I wanted was out of stock. I say luckily, because it cost an eye-watering $90.20, which is just a little on the steep side for a 350-page paperback, I thought. (It’s $9.70 on Kindle).

And that’s probably my major complaint about Singapore – the incredible prices of everything. Three rounds of a pair of drinks? $120. That’s a pretty decent local monthly salary in Phnom Penh. An extremely average one-course dinner for three? $350. I’m not going to be looking at my credit card bills for a month or two, I can tell you.

One other thing I noticed about Singapore was the lack of policeman. I’d imagined that there would be jackbooted enforcers on every street corner tasering people chewing gum or having their hair past their collars. But no, there were none to be seen anywhere. Which makes me think that Singapore polices itself, in some sort of grand mass self-delusion, and no one ever does anything wrong simply because no one does anything wrong. Which is pretty odd. I was glad to get home, to the grubby, cheerful, shattered and pungent chaos of Phnom Penh.

And for no particular reason, here is a picture of a cake I saw the other day, and would very much like to eat. If anyone fancies trying to make one whilst I’m back, do let me know.

It's made of Kit-Kats! I love Kit-Kats!

It’s made of Kit-Kats! I love Kit-Kats!

Wafting to work the other day, I was startled to see that a new statue had appeared at the arse-end of a traffic island on a fairly major junction. The stone statue, of a very small man making a speech, has just been plonked down on the edge of a strip of grass near an advertising hoarding: a far cry from the millions that are being spent on a new statue of the late King Father, which gets its own vast pagoda, nearby.

The little statue

The little statue

But the new diminutive stone statue is far more important in the recent history of this country, reminding everyone of one of the more politically charged killings here in recent years.

The statue is of slain union leader Chea Vichea, and is close to where he was shot to death nine years ago as he read a newspaper.

What Chea Vichea really looked like

What Chea Vichea really looked like

The killing of Chea has all the elements of a Hollywood movie: a murdered political figure, assassins on motorcycles, death threats, allegations of police corruption, witnesses claiming they’ve been intimidated, and two men serving 20-year prison sentences for a crime almost no one believes they committed.

Chea’s funeral in Phnom Penh filled the city streets with tens of thousands of mourners, and his death sparked an immediate outcry from rights groups and foreign diplomats.

Chea had managed to survive the Khmer Rouge, and went on to help found what became Cambodia’s main opposition party.

His reputation grew as a charismatic leader who travelled around the country, working tirelessly to convince garment workers to join the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

After his shooting, the Phnom Penh police arrested two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun. But the apparently swift justice was soon under scrutiny.

Discrepancies in the investigation, along with a lack of evidence meant that at Born and Sok’s first trial in March 2004, the judge threw the case out, citing a lack of evidence.

However, the Appeals Court overruled his decision and ordered a retrial. The judge was removed from his post and transferred to a remote part of the country.

Two years later, they were brought to trial again. Born, who had signed a confession after his arrest, told the court he had been tortured by police into doing so.

The two accused men

The two accused men

Va Sothy, the key witness and the owner of the newsstand where Chea was shot dead, sent a notarised statement to the court saying that the two men were innocent.

“I understood that the fake murderers had been created, because I could clearly remember the faces of the murderers and they were not the same as the pictures publicised,” she wrote.

She did not testify in person because she had fled the country, saying that being the only witness to what was the most political murder of the decade had put her in danger.

The courts disregarded her testimony.

Hope were raised for the pair in December 2008, when the Supreme Court released them on bail and ordered the Appeals Court to reinvestigate the case.

However, late last year the Appeals Court upheld the original verdict. The pair were sent back to prison, where they remain today.

The Cambodian government has denied any wrongdoing.

“Right now everyone wants to put the blame on politics,” said a spokesman, rejecting claims of government intervention.

“We cannot say who is wrong or right, but we respect the court’s decision.”

I bet they do.

But I suppose it is progress of a sort that the government has let the statue be erected, although it’s a pretty feeble simulacrum, and tiny. But there’s a long way still to go.

Woodland sprites

May 8, 2013

When I lived for an extended period in Hong Kong, in the 1990s, we would occasionally discuss what we missed about the UK. As far as I can recall, it was basically the English countryside in Spring: blackthorn-blossomed hedgerows and downy-soft meadows, verdant forests nestled in tiny valleys in Somerset, the Yorkshire Dales; things like that.

On getting back to the UK, I remember discussing what had changed in the old place for the better, and only being able to come up with three things: Pret a Manger; cashback in pubs, and something else, which I can’t remember. Which could be related to the availability of cashback in pubs.

But last week, I got a long and chatty, gossipy email from an old friend. (Hint: I love long, gossipy and chatty emails…). In it, he mentioned that he’d heard a programme on Radio 4 about Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 novel Decline and Fall. He’d remembered that it was one of my favourite books, and kindly sent along a link. I casually clicked it, and spent the next 45 minutes missing England more than I would have thought possible.

It wasn’t great radio, in the way the Hindenburg going up in flames was great radio. Instead, it was three professors of English, and Melvyn Bragg, just talking about the book. I’ve never cared greatly for Bragg, but he knew what he was talking about. And, as I sat on my balcony, listening to Bragg doing his thing, looking out over the mighty Mekong, I was forced to reflect on some of what I’ve given up by moving out here.

The idea that there will ever be a radio station here that would devote 45 minutes to discussing a minor 90-year-old novel is absurd. The UK has only four times the population of Cambodia, but we are, perhaps, less culturally rich here.

Or are we? There are undercurrents here, swirling away, unseen by us barang; things we can’t even begin to guess at. Information moves around independently of us, unseen and unknowable. A large part of that is, obviously the language barrier, which makes life infinitely more mysterious, and I really should try harder. (My longest phrase so far in Khmer translates as “I have no money, but I have a stinky face,” which has ’em in stitches down at The Pub. Honestly.)

Hyper-despot Hun Sen announced this week that his son Hun Manet (not one of the ones wanted in Australia on heroin importation charges) was actually the son of a neak ta, a local spirit, who lives in a tree near one of their many houses. He said this during a nationally-televised speech, aimed at extending brand Kleptocrat for future gerations.

Now, if David Cameron had said that one of his sons was supernaturally-born, after a liason between Sam Cam and a wood spirit, the world would fall on its arse laughing. But here, Hun Manet’s poll figures went up. He’ll almost certainly get elected to the Senate in the July elections.

I realise as I write this, that I’m treading a fine line between being patronising and being stupid. So, to clarify, I don’t believe in neak ta, or god, or anything else supernatural. I think Hun Sen is a remarkably effective leader of this country, if by effective you mean that he is efficiently corrupt, bloodthirsty and unpleasant.

Yes, it is, I suppose, possible, that Hun Manet is the son of a woodland sprite. It is also possible that Hun Sen and his children might retire from public life, and let people get on with trying to make their lives better. Watch me hold my breath.

I’m absolutely sure that Hun Sen thinks he’s doing this country an astonishing favour by holding power in a death grip. The truth is, I can write anti-Hun Sen stuff until the cows get back from a night out at Howie’s Bar, because he’s got everything tied up nice and soundly, and worries about nothing.

As Gibbon pointed out, originally, every empire ends in a decline and a fall. It could be some time though.


Holidays in Cambodia

May 1, 2013

I was always under the impression, when I lived in Hong Kong, that the city was blessed with the greatest number of public holidays of anywhere on earth, because it celebrated both British and Chinese holidays.

But I began to get a bit suspicious about that, after living here for a while. Because Cambodia, I suspect, has more public holidays than anywhere else on the planet. This year’s list runs from early January to mid December, and covers the following: Victory Over Genocide Day, Meak Bochea Day, International Women’s Day, Khmer New Year’s Day, International Labour Day, King’s Birthday, Visak Bochea Day, Royal Ploughing Day, International Children’s Day, King Mother’s Day, Constitutional Day, Pchum Ben Day, Commemoration of King Father Norodom Sihanouk Day, Paris Peace Agreements Day, King’s Coronation Day, Independence Day, Water Festival Day, and International Human Rights Day.

And it is worth noting that of those, four of them are three-day holidays. So, in all, 27 official days off. Which isn’t bad, really, is it?

Sadly, however, journalists don’t get any of them off, apart from three days during the Khmer New Year. And most people working in service industries: restaurants and bars, shops, hotels and so forth, often only get one day off a month.

But my colleagues from the paper’s ad department are all peeling off early today so they can get a head start on International Labour Day. Government departments and offices all faithfully observe each and every holiday. As I probably would too, if they were on offer.

In other news, I got an excited call from Blossom this morning, to tell me that she’d found a pair of three-month-old Boston Terrier puppies.


One of the Boston Terriers found by Blossom today

One of the Boston Terriers found by Blossom today

Apparently there is a bitch here in town, and the owners are planning to breed from her again in two or three months. So we’re now on the list. And, in the name of full disclosure, yes, Blossom found them at her new hairdresser’s salon. Cast that from your minds. They are absolute stone-cold killers, and we might well have one soon. Happy International Labour Day!