Burning up

January 30, 2015

I was going to write about going to a Burns Night Supper last weekend.

I thought that I could get an elegant little piece out of it about the cultural dissonance involved in being in Cambodia and watching a bunch of men in skirts loudly declaiming about “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beasties” and “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face/ Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!”  while eating a sheep’s stomach filled with lungs and entrails. But, on reflection, I decided that it’s a pretty weird thing to do wherever you are: even in Scotland. And, to be honest, my memories of the event are a little hazy. (I was apparently found at the end of the evening with my head on a table, fast asleep.)

A somewhat more troubling import from abroad is an admiration of the life and work of Adolf Hitler.

Cambodia’s National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha attracted justified criticism after he told his subordinates at a meeting in Phnom Penh last week that he “learned” from the Nazi dictator.

Sokha’s comments were apparently made amid speeches defending the authorities’ deadly crackdown on protests last January, which saw five people shot dead.

Sokha quickly backtracked, saying said his comments had been misunderstood, and that while he acknowledged that he “raised the name of Hitler” and said that he learned from him, he said the lesson was far from inspirational.

However a tape of his remarks quickly surfaced: “Speaking frankly, I learned from Hitler. Germany, after World War I, was not allowed by the international community to have more than 100,000 soldiers, but the Nazis and Hitler did whatever so they could wage World War II.
This is the first thing.

“Secondly, I learned from the Vietnamese guerrillas to take small numbers to fight against the big, but that cannot be for winning, but to destroy them. If we want to win, we have to take big numbers to fight against the small—to fight them until they are frightened and it is finished. This is what I can say; it is not accidental, it is not  boastful. My thoughts and methods are to achieve this.”

I leave it to you to decide what you think about his attitude. I think I prefer Burns.



Having twins

January 14, 2015

Phnom Penh is getting a new twin city. I kind of like the idea of twin cities. I like the interchange of ideas and cultures, the reciprocal visits and the fostering of friendship and understanding between different peoples. But I’d always thought that the concept of twinning involved some degree of concordance between places: capital cities, like Phnom Penh, should probably twin with other capitals. But no, our latest twin is … drum roll … Lowell, Massachusetts.

A view of Lowell

A view of Lowell

Now, I’m sure Lowell is a very nice place. But, really? Obviously there are good reasons for Lowell to twin with Phnom Penh, the main one being that there are 10,000 Khmers living there, after they fled the Khmer Rouge, making it the second largest centre of Cambodians in the United States. You can see why the mayor, Rodney M. Elliott, who is currently visiting Phnom Penh, would want to lock up as many Khmer votes as he can by smiling and being nice to Cambodia. But I’m not convinced.

So I went and looked up some of Phnom Penh’s other twin cities. And it’s an odd list. Vientiane, Ho Ch Minh, Hanoi and Bangkok seem fine. I guess I can live with Shanghai, and Mandalay, Bristol and Incheon. In the US, Long Beach is in for the same reason as Lowell. But Providence, Rhode Island, and Cleveland, Tennessee? And Can Tho, Vietnam, Iloilo City in the Philippines and Changsha in China?

I think Phnom Penh is selling itself short by twinning with minor cities. Cleveland, Tennessee, wonderful as it may be, has a population of only 40,000, and is ranked as the fourteenth largest city in Tennessee. It may be famous for Tall Betsy, the Official Halloween Goblin of Bradley County, and for its annual apple festival, but less than one percent of the population is Asian. I don’t know what they were thinking.

Some other people who seem to have left their thinking caps at home were three foreign tourists who were deported yesterday, after being caught riding motorcycles in Kandal province while completely naked. The trio, two men and a woman, from Scotland, Italy and Finland, also shot video of themselves doing it, and posted it on YouTube.



“Their actions have seriously violated Cambodia’s integrity, the beautiful customs and culture of Cambodia, and Cambodian law,” said a police spokesman.

“We cannot allow them to commit pornography like this in our country.”

We all know that backpackers are clueless and badly dressed dickheads, but seriously? They’re spoiling it for the rest of us.

Roads to perdition

January 6, 2015

I used to be a big fan of Cambodian drivers, marvelling at their bravery, their willingness to exploit every inch of the road, and pavement, to get to their destination, their haughty disregard for basic road safety, their devil-may-care attitude to drinking and driving. But I’m beginning to rethink this. I have now decided that Cambodian drivers are lunatics.

I say this after having spent nearly three years negotiating Cambodia’s roads, mainly from a precarious perch in the back of a tuk-tuk. What I initially thought of as ingenious ways of driving cooperatively, turn out, on close inspection, to be merely impossibly selfish ways of trying to screw everyone else out of road space.

I’ve written about road traffic accidents before and how they’re the leading cause of death in Cambodia. They’re not, as it happens: that distinction goes to our old friends influenza, pneumonia and heart disease. RTAs come in at number 15, according to the WHO. But at least seven people die every day in car and motorbike crashes, and scores more are injured. Everyone here has a terrible story about awful accidents, and the lack of enforcement, that means that if you can afford an SUV, you can afford to pay off the police if you kill someone. And everyone also knows that if you’re involved in an accident, not to hang around, as you have a good chance of being beaten to death by angry onlookers.

The son of an acquaintance was nearly sideswiped recently by a huge black SUV at 0300hrs as he crossed a major road in Phnom Penh on foot. He had the temerity to slap the vehicle as it sped by, whereupon the car stopped, a bodyguard got out and chased him into a nearby restaurant and shot him through the buttocks. So don’t do that, either.

Another friend of mine borrowed a Porsche Panamera last weekend. (Porsche is opening a dealership here, because what this country really needs is more 160mph high-status SUVs for a population that doesn’t have to take a driving test) When he got back from a day-trip to the coast, he looked as if he’d just done six rounds with Mike Tyson. Even in a $300,000 car, driving in this country is terrifying. And he got home before dark.

But my annoyance with Cambodian drivers stems currently stems from last Sunday: I had been around the corner having a soothing sundowner at Zeppelin, and was making my way home at dusk, when some idiot on a motorcycle ran into me from behind. I’m guessing he just misjudged a gap. He shunted me several feet into the air, but luckily I managed to remain on my feet, and just have a lot of bruises on one side of my body. The idiot boy racer just managed to stay on his bike, and took off, minus half his bike’s fairing, which was lucky for him, because I had very much wanted to have a quiet word with him.

It’s a useful reminder that you can’t be too careful here, and you can’t take anything for granted. I don’t drive here; I don’t have a motorbike, and I don’t even ride a pushbike. And still, I came within a whisker of being badly hurt on the roads. Ah, what fun!