Aussie rules?

February 24, 2014

A recent proposal from Australia to the Cambodia government has people here in Phnom Penh agog, as well as most Australians of even the slightest liberal viewpoint.

A proposal from the Australian Foreign Minister that Cambodia resettle refugees seeking asylum in Australia has been greeted with hilarity here.

Speaking to the press on Saturday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong revealed that his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, had made the request in talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, a proposal that the government was taking “very seriously”, he said.

Now, it’s easy to mock the proposal: most economic migrants would find Cambodia’s nonexistent welfare system, health care and education a bit of a black mark. An average daily wage of $1 is probably not what they were looking for when they got on the boats to go to Oz.

But genuine political refugees are unlikely to be particularly safe here. In 2009, Cambodia sent 20 Uighur refugees back to China after they were smuggled into the country by a Christian group. The 20 Uighurs said they were fleeing persecution after a crackdown that followed riots in western China.

The deportation, in the face of protests by the United States, the United Nations and human rights groups, came two days before China signed 14 trade deals with Cambodia, worth approximately $1.2 billion.

Before being deported, several of the asylum seekers told the office of the UNHCR that they feared long jail terms or even the death penalty. At least two of them have since been sentenced to life in China’s lovely prison system. Information on the others is unavailable.

Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian Greens party senator and immigration spokeswoman says “Sending refugees to Cambodia is neither a sustainable or reasonable response to the fact that people seek safety from war and terror by coming to Australia.”

Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak told a local paper that Cambodia had a “horrible” refugee rights record. “We don’t have the financial capacity but we also don’t have the political will [for] refugees who need protection, especially when most refugees are of a political nature,” he said.

Meanwhile, people have been asking me about the progress of Harley the puppy. Well, firstly, we’ve decided he has oppositional defiant disorder, which is described as “an ongoing pattern of anger-guided disobedience, hostility, and defiant behaviour toward authority figures that goes beyond the bounds of normal puppy behaviour.” Yep, that’s Harley.

He’s also become enormous. Here is a picture of him considering whether to eat an entire, real, horse.  Honestly.


Harley contemplating his horse d’oevres.

And here is a picture of him trying to stop me taking his picture.


So Harley is fine, but an enormous pain in the arse.

But we love him immoderately.



February 17, 2014

This can be a very strange country sometimes. I wrote recently about the theft of some Buddha relics from a very sacred temple just north of Phnom Penh. Well, they’ve arrested a man for the theft, called Keo Reaksmey, who reportedly believes he is “the brother of the sun.”

Keo – a gentle and kind young man, according to neighbours – would put on a white robe and sash usually reserved for nuns, and would present offerings to the sun each day at dawn. So far, just a typical loony. What amazed me is that local officials apparently believe he was given powers of invisibility and superhuman speed.

Bot Pheakday, director of a school in Khvav commune, where Reaksmey studied, was quoted by local papers as saying that Reaksmey was thought to have inherited the “powers” from his father.

“This man could run very fast, and turn invisible sometimes. I think he had magic powers,” he said, with a straight face. “His father was also wanted by the police in the past, but he always evaded capture and disappeared.”

Meanwhile, in another village in another part of the country, thousands of people are flocking to pray to eight pythons they believe can bring good luck and ward off illness.

After the pythons were caught and handed over to wildlife officers, residents of the remote village began reporting high levels of anxiety and having nightmares about the snakes, according to the district police chief.

Word apparently spread that the eight pythons were deities that had been protecting the villagers for more than 100 years.

A seven-day “ceremony of happiness” has been organised to raise the money needed to build a new habitat, back near where they were found.

A villager told a local paper that they “do not know if they are pythons or holy pythons, but villagers have had nightmares telling them that these are the deities,” he said. “Some villagers are ill right now. If the pythons are not taken back to the same place, the whole village will be faced with a big problem.” Er, yes, quite.

And finally, a group of international UFO fanatics has announced plans to build an alien embassy here in Cambodia. These people, known as Raelians, believe life on Earth is the scientifically engineered creation of an advanced alien civilisation, called the Elohim, and their mission on the planet is to prepare humanity for their eventual return.

One of the main goals of Raelism is to build a $20 million embassy for the Elohim. They want to build it in Israel, but their symbol – a swastika enveloped in a Star of David – means the movement is banned there.

So Raelians are looking eastward and have applied to the Council of Ministers in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen. A spokesman for the Council of Ministers said that although he was not aware of the application, he would welcome an extraterrestrial movement in Cambodia. “To me, this would be great if we can start an alien movement or institution in Cambodia. We are not alone, my friend. When I tell my friends at work, nobody believes me.”

The very sensible-looking embassy for aliens proposed for Cambodia

The very sensible-looking embassy for aliens proposed for Cambodia

The group’s leader, Frenchman Claude Vorilhon, founded the cult in 1974. Controversies over attempts at human cloning in Europe have sadly led to Vorilhon’s exile from France, where there is a warrant out for his arrest.

Despite the movement’s expressed alignment with Buddhist values, since its first seminar in 2006, it has only managed to attract 10 adherents in Cambodia. So perhaps the country isn’t quite as strange as it occasionally seems.

Epically happy

February 11, 2014

Epic Arts is a charity based in the UK, China, and here in Cambodia, where they have an arts centre in the gorgeous, sleepy riverside town of Kampot. They work with the disabled, and “believe in a world where people with disabilities are valued, accepted and respected.”

You may not have heard of them, but they have some high-profile supporters and patrons, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who says of them: “I am deeply moved by Epic Arts’ determination to see lives transformed through the arts and by their commitment to fight injustices that affect people with disabilities. Epic Arts opens our eyes to our common humanity so that all of us can flourish.” Amen to that.

Anyway, someone showed me a video a couple of days ago that they made, and I can’t tell you how impossibly lovely, life-affirming and heart-warming it is. It stars 11 deaf people, 10 physically disabled, 15 learning disabled, six parents and Sothon, who is blind – you’ll know who he is, if you watch it. They’re dancing and singing along to the Pharrell Williams song ‘Happy’ around Kampot, and if it doesn’t make you grin like a maniac, then you’re probably dead.

So go on, give it five minutes of your time – Epic Arts get some money every time it gets watched – and share it around if you like it. And you will like it, guaranteed.


An odd week, here in the Pearl of Asia. Last weekend was great: an old and very dear friend from London came for the weekend. We had a profoundly cool time, caught up properly and insulted each others’ football teams in a mutually satisfying fashion.

On his last night, I dropped him at his hotel, chosen by me, which is new, and looks great, at about 0230hrs. At about 0730 he was banging on the door of our flat, having had all of his possessions stolen.

These things happen; of course they do. His wallet, watch, phone and iPad were all replaceable, and probably securely insured. The fact that someone made it past the rolls of barbed wire and over a second-floor balcony, without being detected by the hotel’s security staff might raise an eyebrow.

But what really pisses me off is the attitude of the hotel staff. The manager, some deeply pointless Frenchman, couldn’t care less, and actually excused himself from any discussion on the subject. The culpable security guard just laughed, even when accused. The hotel is called La Librarie, on Street 184, and I’d rather stab myself in the face with a radioactive knife than recommend that anyone stay there. Tripadvisor beckons.

The police, of course, were worse than useless, and are withholding issuing an insurance-helpful certificate, because my friend had to fly out to a range of meetings in KL and Singapore. Although they intimated that with the right payment, everything could be resolved happily.

So that was the bad.

The next day saw the launch of Phnom Penh’s new bus service, which runs the length of the city, for a mere 1,500 real, or 37 cents. The story has made the news worldwide, but that’s probably due to a huge crew of teenage freelance journalists here desperately trying to sell something, more than actual news value.

But, by god, this city could use a decent bus service. Traffic has got significantly worse in the couple of years I’ve been here: snarls and gridlock during rush hour are persistent and unpleasant. I got stuck at a major intersection a week or two ago when the traffic lights failed, and it looked like Rorke’s Drift.

So we wish the bus service all the best. One article I read suggested that there were 1.5 million mopeds here, in a city of 1.5 million, so that’s clearly wrong, as I don’t have one. And nor do too many children under the age of about, oh, seven. Everyone else does, though.

The next good thing was that the garbage collectors’ strike ended. These poor people work like Japanese beavers, for next to no money; finally they went on strike. A compromised was achieved, and everyone seems relatively happy, but for three or four days, the trash built up on street corners, and, in this heat, it can fester. Good god, but it can stink. I believe they now get $100 a month.

And finally, Blossom got a call this morning to tell us that a great friend of ours had died. He was one of the nicest guys I knew here. I last spoke to him just before he flew to Kota Kinabalu, where he had a massive heart attack: he had a great plan that involved us working together on a fun project. He was smart and serious, a gentle soul, and the world will miss him. RIP Chip.

So that was a week.