A thin blue line

June 9, 2015

The police in Cambodia are, to be honest, a dismal organisation. Badly paid, trained and equipped, they’re usually to be found lying in the shade at the side of major roads, occasionally getting up to extort bribes from random innocent motorists. Otherwise, they’re an irrelevance.

Unless, that is, you like smoking shisha pipes, in which case they can be an unmitigated menace. Last weekend, Phnom Penh police arrested 80 people for smoking shisha in two nightclubs, held them for 24 hours, ‘educated’ them and then told their parents. All of those arrested were over the age of 18, so were adults. But they had to be released into the care of their parents. I know that shame is an important part of the societal glue that holds Asian cultures together, but this seems ridiculous.

While it is certainly true that smoking a hookah is illegal in Cambodia since last year, bringing the parents of adults into the situation is insane, and deeply troubling. A chap called Brigadier General San Sothy told a local newspaper: “We educated them and made an agreement with their parents to guarantee they would not use shisha again,” he said. “The majority of the parents did not know that their children used shisha.”

Miscreants brought to book. Streets now safe.

Miscreants brought to book. Streets now safe.

Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen, an unrepentant tobacco smoker, said young Cambodians were skipping school to smoke sisha, and the tobacco could be laced with other drugs such as opium. “Parents are concerned by this,” the prime minister said. Well, it might be a thought, perhaps, to crack down on the import of opium. But that’s never going to happen in the Medellin on the Mekong, is it?

Meanwhile, the National Military Police are a somewhat different matter. They mean business. They made the news earlier this year when the head of the NMP was caught on tape urging his troops to follow his lead and learn from Adolf Hitler. These are the same troops that shot and killed five unarmed garment workers the previous year.

The head of the Military Police, one Sao Sokha, who is also the head of the Football Federation of Cambodia, was recently approached by a journalist, who wanted to ask him about the FFC’s support for FIFAs appalling Sepp Blatter.

After refusing to confirm whether the FFC voted for Blatter in the recent presidential ballot, the general said: “We are not thieves with them, and we are not involved with them.” He then went on to add: “My point of view is that I hate The Cambodia Daily.”

Cambodia is ranked 178th out of 209 FIFA member states.

According to FIFA website, it has paid for five projects in Cambodia since 2000, including the construction of the FFC’s headquarters, which cost $440,000, three projects at the country’s football training facility in Takeo province, for just under $1.5 million, and the resurfacing of the Olympic Stadium, which cost $500,000. Cambodia also receives $250,000 a year from FIFA for ‘development.’


Last night, I was going for a sunset drink with an old friend, and I decided to take Harley the Wonder Dog with me. I took a tuk-tuk to the north-west corner of the Royal Palace, so he could have a bit of a walk, down to the riverside; as I got out of the tuk-tuk it began to rain, hard.

We walked slowly along the wall of the palace, sheltering as best we could from the monsoon rain, coming in from the south, in the lee of the wall. By the time we got to the end of the wall, we were both soaked, but still had a couple of hundred yards of open ground to cover, so I decided to lean up against the wall and watch for a bit.

As we stood there, casually watching the world go by, I heard a crack above me and looked up. And saw a vast tree branch falling directly at us. With my well-known ninja skills coming to the fore, I kicked the dog away from me, and about a billionth of a second later this humungous branch sailed past our heads and smacked into the pavement.

I thought the dog was dead. Luckily he was not. But another two inches, and it would have broken his back like a breadstick. Another two inches the other way, and it would have pulverised my skull. I don’t want to exaggerate, but this branch was six or seven inches across at its thickest, must have been fifteen feet long and weighed a couple of hundred pounds, and fell about 40 feet. We were incredibly lucky (also, ninja).

It was, incidentally, at almost precisely the same spot where Harley spotted a snake a few weeks ago, oiling its way across the pavement. We went over to take a closer look, and the snake, which was green and about three feet long, rather took against this, and got all attack-y, which I thought was a bit much. Luckily Harley was on the leash, so I pulled him away, or the morning would have become something of a veterinary nightmare.

I had just been reflecting about accidental death that morning when reading about the ferry sinking in China; one moment you’re cheerfully asleep: the next and you’re trying to breathe the Yangtze in the dark. Luckily, I thought, that’s unlikely to happen to me, as I live a very sober and quiet life. When I was younger, however, like most young men, I did any number of colossally dangerous stuff, often involving shotguns, motorbikes, feral bulls, rock faces, agricultural machinery, chemicals and alcohol. But I grew up, and stopped practically all the bad shit. Now, apart from taking tuk-tuks on the streets of Cambodia, I do nothing dangerous at all: I am old and wise and careful.

And yet, in the last three years, I’ve been hospitalised for a week and spent six months on crutches after simply walking down the street. And was hit by a rogue motorbike. And now was almost turned into human pâté like something from out of The Omen. I’m not sure that Cambodia is any more dangerous than anywhere else, but sometimes it feels that way.

And still on the subject of stuff I don’t know: I’d always thought I knew quite a lot about British rock music of the 1970s. But a few days ago I discovered that a host of British music luminaries held a series of concerts to benefit Cambodia in 1979, and I’d never heard of it.

Organised by the unlikely duo of Paul McCartney and former-Nazi UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea were held between Christmas and the New Year at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. They featured, amongst others, The Who, The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Queen, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Specials, The Pretenders, Wings, and a band of all-stars organised by McCartney, which included John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, and saw John Bonham’s last-ever British appearance.


The concert was released on vinyl only, in 1980, and has never been re-released. Allmusic says of the vinyl recording: “The audio quality is shabby; nothing leaps out as being more sonically interesting than a live radio broadcast, and the performances are okay but not staggering.”

Like everything else in life, it is available on Youtube, but I haven’t watched it yet, because it starts with Queen, and I’d really rather stab myself in the face with a radioactive knife than watch Queen. Or perhaps take the dog out for a walk.