Kampottering around

October 31, 2014

I’m sitting writing this in the sleepy riverside town of Kampot, one of my favourite places in all of Cambodia. I spent much of the day interviewing disabled infants, which makes for a torrid time, quite frankly, so now I’m relaxing with a stiff gin and tonic and watching the sun set in a blaze of orange and crimson behind Bokor Mountain, watching the fishing boats chug out to sea down the broad pewter expanse of the Kampot River, and starting to feel a bit better.

Kampot is a magical town. I’m not the only person who thinks so: the place is rammed full of expats who’ve moved here to take advantage of the balmy climate, laid-back atmosphere and laughably cheap cost of living. Every evening on the riverside, where I’m currently sitting, the locals and the expats take a passeggiata, slowly, to watch the sun set; many of the expats, though, ride huge Harleys. Truth be told, many of the expats are balding, paunchy, middle-aged European men. I don’t really know why this should be, but it is.

Mostly, the Europeans run bars, of which there are an inordinate number. And most of them are largely empty, this being Cambodia during the rainy season. But I wonder if some of them have imported something strange to this little piece of paradise. The hotel I’m staying at has the radio playing in the lobby and the bar. Which would be fine, except that they’re playing BBC Radio 2, live from the UK.

Now, if you’re not familiar with Radio 2, that might not seem too objectionable. But trust me, it is. Radio 2 is where dreams go to die; the home of hairpieces and ironed jeans, of middle-class, middle-income, middle-life Britons. Radio 2 is purely British, in that it’s solidly turgid, like chip butties and Dralon sofa covers, like EastEnders, like sharing bathwater, like Alan Partridge. I left the UK shortly after I accidentally overheard Radio 2 playing Paranoid by Black Sabbath, and I discovered that my entire rebellious childhood had been traduced and co-opted by a race to the median.

So it’s very odd to sit on the banks of the Kampot River, watching geckos chase across the ceilings, smelling barbecueing pork and revolting fish, and listening to some Smashey & Nicey clone talking about roadworks on the M25 and congratulating Ian and Mabel from “beautiful Portsmouth” on a happy 56th wedding anniversary.

A rat has just run past my table. That’s what I came for.

But I suspect that’s just me. Not drowning. Just waving.

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Engineering change

October 21, 2014

Last week, I was on my way to Kampot province on business with a colleague. He picked me up early in the morning, and we were wending our merry way south, when the car started making ominous noises, and the engine began cutting out. We managed to make our way to what I was told was a garage, and a number of teenagers made their way over, and began the age-old ritual of sucking on their teeth while staring at our engine.

So I resigned myself to uncountable hours of sitting around. And so it came to be.

But unlike many garages where I’ve spent time, this one was quite fascinating. For a start, most of the tools seemed to be made of refashioned lengths of rebar. It was even filthier than most Western garages. And there was no electricity.

Despite all this, they guys had the cylinder head off in a couple of minutes. In between rounds of tooth-sucking, various people headed off on extremely lengthy moped journeys to pick up new accelerator couplings and head gaskets. Eventually, all the right spares appeared, and a few minutes later the engine was purring away nicely. It was quite a feat of skill and ingenuity. Our trip was ruined, but it was an education into what you can do with practically nothing at all.

I was thinking about this as I watched, at some length over the past couple of weeks, the erection of a couple of extra storeys on the building next door to ours. Lorries keep turning up laden with bricks, which have to be unloaded by hand, two at a time, by large gangs of labourers. This takes a full day for each truckload: a job that with pallets and a forklift would take less than five minutes. Then the bricks are stuffed into sacks and carried on to the roof, which is another full day per load. It’s the same with sand. It makes me weep at the inefficiency of it all, but, of course, it employs a lot of people, which is a good thing.

And the health and safety! Kids in their mid-teens in nothing but sunglasses, jeans and flip-flops hanging from one leg upside down 60 feet up while tack welding. I truly can’t watch.

Yet this country, despite its technological limitations, has more Sim cards per capita than anywhere else on earth (I’ve been told). Even Blossom has two. And after dark, the labourers, who all sleep on the roof amongst the piles of sand and bricks and cement, all play with their mobile phones, the little silvery lights sparkling like a shoal of fish through the darkness. It’s most odd.

A life unexamined

October 6, 2014

During my recent sojourn to the UK, I missed what is a rather wonderful, if depressing, story from here in Phnom Penh, and one that seems to encapsulate many of the problems currently faced by Cambodia as a whole.

The results of a new government blitz on cheating and corruption at this year’s school grade 12 exams were announced while I was away. And it turns out that only 26 percent of students passed this year. This is compared with 87 percent who passed last year. Only 11 students got the top ‘A’ grade, out of the almost 90,000 who sat the exams.

The Education Ministry says that for the first time in recent history, all the students who passed did so purely on merit. A pass mark is necessary to get a university place here.

In the past, students could take mobile phones and cheat sheets into the exam. Teachers would sell test papers, students would pool money to get invigilators to turn a blind eye to cheating, and parents would even throw rocks wrapped with answer sheets through the windows of testing centres.

This year was rather different.

Copies of the exam were kept under lock and key, military police were deployed at test sites, students were patted down at least three times before entering the exam halls, and thousands of volunteers were hired to act as independent monitors.

Now I think this is brilliant. The recently appointed Education Minister, Hang Chuon Naron, who has a surprisingly good reputation, appears determined to make permanent changes. And these changes are going to cause pain. He told a local paper: “The result of the exam allows us to fix our education system, [because] we can see the strengths and the weaknesses [clearly] … the reforms are necessary because we cannot allow this to continue, otherwise we will produce massive [numbers] of graduates who will not be able to find jobs.”

But those who used to benefit from the corruption, the teachers and students, have been whining on about how corrupt everyone else is, how expensive daily life is, how having monitors watching them puts them off giving the right answers, how everyone else used to do it in the past, how life isn’t fair and so on.

So the government has given in, and announced a re-sit of the exams in the second week of October. I’d like to think that 60,000-odd kids who failed are now working like Japanese beavers to learn the stuff they clearly hadn’t bothered with before, but they may just be redoubling their efforts to find ways to cheat. We shall have to wait and see. But it’s a start.