Forever blowing bubbles

April 30, 2015

I’ve been banging on for a while now about a looming property bubble in Phnom Penh, but clearly prophets are without honour even far away from home. Here, in Cambodia in 2015, it’s all about profits.

A recent report from global estate agents CBRE says the supply of condominiums in Phnom Penh will increase by 533 per cent by the end of 2018, with some 9,500 additional units available for rent in the central and outer areas of the capital. A lunatic friend of mine even managed to sell a piece to the New York Times saying that Chinese investors would be lapping up Cambodian condos: I’m not so sure.

However, there’s no doubt that lots of people are rushing in to Cambodian property at the moment, and there are plenty of knock-on effects. One of these was brought home to me quite forcefully a couple of weeks ago, when one of my favourite bars, Cantina, was forced to close its doors because of unsustainable rent increases.

Run by a gentle American with the slightly improbable name of Hurley Scroggins III, Cantina was the unofficial gathering place of the foreign media in Phnom Penh. Ostensibly a Mexican restaurant, I’m not sure I ever ate there, but it was a wonderful place for a drink and a gossip. It was unassuming, and not the smartest place in town, but the Beer Lao was cold and the welcome cheerful. Everyone drifted past up and down the riverside, and, sitting gazing out over the waters of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong, you could catch up with old friends and meet new ones, arrange jobs, listen to fantasists and lunatics, laugh at stoned tourists stumbling out of the happy pizza place next door and get your shoes shined. But, after 10 years, the landlord kicked Hurley out, and Phnom Penh is a poorer place for it.

It’s also poorer after a slew of closures of live music venues, the most recent being a bar called Equinox, on Street 278 in the trendy BKK1 area. Unable to afford a non-negotiable 300 percent rent increase, the bar, which had hosted almost every band that’s ever played in Cambodia, was forced to close up just a week or so ago.

The former owner said that he was gloomy about prospects for the area. “It’s East Asians coming in with all this money,” he said, referring to the increased competition produced by mainly Chinese investors. “It’s infected the Khmer landlords.” Asian businessmen have been seen touring the premises, but nothing is known about the future of the space.

I liked Equinox. They had some great music; the pool table was a bit eccentric, but the huge floor-mounted fans tended to compensate for that. When it opened, nine years ago, the roads in the area had only just been paved. And look at it now.

The news of Equinox’s closure came on the heels of a long list of other closures around the city. Slur Bar, The Groove and Oscars 51 shut up shop just before the Khmer New Year. Memphis Bar shut down, and The Village closed for refurbishments and never reopened. These names may not mean much if you don’t live here, but, if you liked music and lived in Phnom Penh, they were crucial. Nothing is replacing them.

Meanwhile, an American popstrel called Demi Lovato (I had to go and look her name up; I could only recall her being called something like Devil’s Tomato) has announced a gig in Phnom Penh in a couple of weeks, and 35,000 people are expected. Her fans here mounted a sustained campaign on Facebook to bring her here: the Demi Lovato Cambodia Fan Club has over 23,000 followers. She’ll join an exalted list of musicians who have made it to Cambodia in recent years, including the distinguished Danish band Michael Learns to Rock and not offensively bland Ronan Keating.

I’m sorry, I can’t help sneering. I guess if 35,000 people turn out for a gig in Cambodia, that’s got to be a good thing. Except…


Donut even go there

April 24, 2015


The relentless commodification of Cambodia continues apace, with the news this week that US donut chain Krispy Kreme is to open 10 stores across the country. Joining Burger King, Dairy Queen, KFC, Swensens, Costa Coffee and Dominos, amongst others (no Starbucks or McDonalds yet, though!), a little part of me dies every time I read about a new roll-out of some clean, well-managed, job-providing soulless corporate entity here. Especially when they say things like “This agreement … will enable us to bring our mission of touching and enhancing lives through the joy that is Krispy Kreme to the people of Cambodia.” But that’s just me.

And, to be fair, I can’t think of many places to buy donuts in Phnom Penh, should such an urge take you. Personally, I wouldn’t cross the road to eat a free donut. I seem to recall my brother having a pile of Krispy Kreme donuts as a wedding cake: a fact upon which I shall not comment further.

But it is kind of sad that it takes a vast US company to bring donuts to Cambodia, when Cambodians have a fascinating history with donuts, in America. Because the little sugary rings have acted as a lifebelt for thousands of Cambodian immigrants to the US for many years now.

Fleeing the Khmer Rouge, tens of thousands of poor and often illiterate Cambodians made it to the States from 1975 onwards, and a staggering amount went into the donut business. In Los Angeles, it is estimated that 80 percent of the 5,000 donut businesses are Cambodian-owned, and the figure is 90 percent in Texas. (In north-east Texas, there is even something called the Donut Trail, and every business is Cambodian owned. Glazing a trail, perhaps?)

The reasons for the rush to donuts is quite simple: the business is cheap to operate, needing not much more than flour, sugar and shortening, frying is easy to master, and the space required for sales is minimal. It is labour intensive though, and Cambodian families could manage that.

But there is another, more interesting reason for the Cambodian Donut Hegemony, and his name is Ted Ngoy.

Arriving in the US in 1975, Ngoy worked as a janitor in Long Beach. He managed to get hired by Winchell’s, a donut chain in southern California, and two years later, he had saved enough to buy the first of many dozens of donut stores. Within a few years, he had gone on to sell millions of doughnuts, made a fortune, bought luxurious homes, drove fast cars, holidayed in Europe, and had shaken the hands of three presidents.

Philanthropically, Ngoy would employ other Cambodians, and sell them stores to allow them to work their way up into entrepreneurial American society. Ngoy sponsored thousands of refugees, promising them work in his shops. At his peak, he owned 70 shops. In turn, those pioneers got their friends and relatives started.

By 1990, however, Ngoy’s gambling habit had taken over his life, and the Donut King’s fortunes plummeted. He eventually returned to Cambodia, penniless, and formed a useless political party, and then went back to the States. In 2005 he was discovered by the Los Angeles Times sleeping rough on the porch of a friend’s mobile home. “I don’t know who I am right now,” he told them.

In between, he had managed to secure Most-Favoured-Nation trade status for Cambodia after lobbying the US, making use of friends in the Republican Party.

Recently he has apparently been back in Cambodia again, most recently running a small real estate company on the coast.

Ted Ngoy in 2013

Ted Ngoy in 2013

Ngoy is pragmatic about the donut business in the US: “In America, many people do other things now. They have some more money, they go to other fields. But everybody starts from the base of doughnut shops and I think that’s a good start.”

Surely you jest?

April 19, 2015

Sometimes this blog could just write itself. Honestly.

The International Organization for Migration said it is expecting the first refugees to arrive in Phnom Penh within days from the Pacific island of Nauru, as part of a controversial resettlement deal cooked up between Australia and Cambodia last year.

News of the first arrivals follows the leaking of a letter that the refugees are being given that makes … interesting … claims about the state of Cambodia’s democracy, health care system and respect for free speech.

Under the agreement, Cambodia has agreed to take an unlimited number of the hundreds of refugees that Australia is currently holding on Nauru, in return for $35 million in aid.

Rights groups and lawmakers in both countries have attacked the deal, “accusing Australia of shirking its international obligations for the refugees by shunting them off to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region,” according to the Cambodia Daily.

Two separate delegations from Cambodia that visited Nauru have so far failed to convince a single refugee to take up the offer. Cambodia said the visiting officials gave the refugees “an honest take” on what they could expect life to be like in their country.

A leaked letter, however, shows that the refugees are being lied to. The five-page letter, which is being handed out by Australian immigration officials on Nauru, is titled “Settlement in Cambodia” and offers guidance to what help refugees can expect upon arriving here.

“Moving to Cambodia provides an opportunity for you and your family to start a new life in a safe country, free from persecution and violence, and build your future,” it says.

Cambodians “enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic society, including freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”

On the subject of safety, the letter tells the refugees that they have nothing to worry about. “Cambodia is a safe country, where police maintain law and order,” it says. “It does not have problems with violent crime or stray dogs.”

“Cambodia has a high standard of health care,” the letter goes on to say, “with multiple hospitals and general practitioners.”

Where to start?

Last year, researchers at Harvard and the University of Sydney ranked Cambodia’s 2013 national election the fifth most “flawed or failed” out of the 73 national polls held around the world in the previous 18 months. It beat Belarus, the Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, and Equatorial Guinea, though. Which is, I suppose, something.

In 2013, the US-based Freedom House ranked Cambodia “not free” for the 40th year running, placing it among the countries “where basic political rights are absent, and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied.”

Just last month, the World Justice Project ranked Cambodia 98th out of 102 countries in its index of government openness. Cambodia also consistently ranks near the bottom of global measures of corruption and press freedom.

The government regularly deploys police and soldiers to break up peaceful protests by force. The UN’s last human rights envoy to Cambodia said the judiciary was “riddled” with corruption.

The US Bureau of Diplomatic Security last year released a report for embassy staff that gave Cambodia a “critical” crime rating. “The frequency of armed robberies involving weapons continues at high levels.”

The Australian Foreign Affairs Department says visitors to Cambodia should take out medical evacuation insurance.

“Health and medical services in Cambodia are generally of a very poor quality and very limited in the services they can provide,” the department says. “Outside Phnom Penh, there are almost no medical facilities equipped to deal with medical emergencies.”

The Guardian's take on the subject...

The Guardian’s take on the subject…

But on the bright side, Cambodia has just won a Guinness World Record, for making the biggest rice cake in the world. Weighing in at four tons, the cake was paraded through the streets of Siem Reap, to general joy and delight.


Hun Many, a CPP lawmaker and son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, said the accomplishment would earn Cambodia international respect. “I am proud to be a child of Cambodia, and today we have achieved a giant sticky rice cake, and the world will acknowledge that from now on.” Hun told an audience in Siem Reap.

“Our hard work comes from having a singular spirit and a single target to make a giant sticky rice cake to make the people and the international stage know what Cambodia is today and what can come from our unity,” he added.

Dog eat dog

April 7, 2015

I was sad to miss an interesting little rally held in central Phnom Penh last weekend, because it concerned a subject which I find quite interesting: pet meat. I was also saddened that I missed it, because it was very nearly violently broken up by the police, and I quite fancy a little bit of a rumble with the filth, when I’ve got right on my side.

Eating dogs and cats is common in Cambodia, even if it doesn’t appear in many tourist guides. I’ve never bothered, mainly because the sort of restaurants that serve dog meat are so foul as to require immediate giant doses of worm medicine, once the food poisoning finally wears off.

A few years ago Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema even encouraged the eating of dog, and said banning dog meat would hurt the city. “Come on, dog meat is so delicious,” he said. “The Vietnamese and Koreans love to eat dog meat.” Dog meat should be sold openly in the markets, he said, because poor people eat dog meat. “They don’t have [nice] wine, but poor people can enjoy their dog meat with palm juice wine,” Kep said.



My landlord has had three dogs stolen since we’ve been here, all taken for the pot. He seems pretty blasé about it. His latest response is to own a dog that just looks incredibly unappetizing. This one has been unmolested for more than a year. But we have to take a lot of care when we walk Harley the Wonder Dog, as plenty of casual passers-by see 12 kilos of tasty protein strolling by on the end of a leash, and not the apogee of canine evolution that we do.

Harley, Hammer of the Dogs

Harley, Hammer of the Dogs

But the “Say No To Dog Meat” rally on Sunday, which seems to have been organized mainly by expats, was banned on the spot by the authorities, despite the event being initially sanctioned by the local council. Some 25 owners, with about 30 dogs, gathered at Neak Banh Teuk Park, intending to walk their dogs to another nearby park for a speech, and to circulate a petition for a law banning the trade of dogs and cats for consumption.

But instead, several van-loads of angry policeman turned up and started remonstrating with the walkers, shouting at them and telling them they would be arrested and their dogs kicked to death if they didn’t disperse.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the municipality could not permit people marching with animals. “We understand [if] they walk to campaign against trafficking or eating animals such as dog, but we don’t allow a walk like that,” Dimanche told a local paper. “It’s not normal.”

Now, I can understand that the authorities might be concerned if the march had involved thousands of woefully underpaid and underfed garment workers asking for better pay and conditions. But 25 expats with fluffy dogs? What’s the worst that could happen? And they were all, to a man, apparently carrying plastic bags to scoop up any dogshit that might have been unloaded upon Phnom Penh’s pristine streets.

As I say, I’m fairly neutral on the subject of eating dogs. I’d prefer not to do it much myself, but surely, if we eat everything else on god’s green earth, what’s wrong with chowing down on a little chow? Pigs are thought to be smarter than dogs, but I bet many of the Phnom Penh Puppy Posse had a bacon sandwich that morning.

I’d obviously be furious, and inconsolable, if someone stole and ate the Mighty Harley. Probably about as much as I would be if someone stole and ate my brother. But other people’s dogs? Maybe not so much. A western paper recently asked a diner at a dog restaurant in Vietnam if it made any difference to him that his meal could be someone’s pet. “No,” he said. “It’s not my pet, so I don’t really care.”

No, what gets me is the hypocrisy of the authorities in getting out the jackboots to hassle 25 dog owners on a Sunday afternoon.

First they came for the Socialists…