Approaching dry land

July 27, 2015

Some things in life bore me to distraction. Talking about taxes, for instance, is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s bad enough having to pay them: to devote any more time than that to them seems crazed. Which might explain why my finances could best be described as chaotic.

Another thing that bores me is the weather. Weather happens; there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just deal with it. Listening to weather forecasts makes my eyes glaze over with tedium. I’m with Proust’s narrator’s friend M. Bloch, who famously said: “Sir, I am absolutely incapable of telling you whether it has rained. I live so resolutely apart from physical contingencies that my senses no longer trouble to inform me of them.”

I live in a country where it rains a lot, and yet I don’t own an umbrella or a raincoat. Or at least, I live in a country where it usually rains a lot. But not, so far, this year. This year, the rains have been noticeable only by their sporadic and infrequent nature. And that’s beginning to worry me.

A technical adviser with the Mekong River Commission says the entire country has been suffering from “really bad drought” since the end of last year. “It’s as bad as it’s ever been,” he told a local newspaper. “The whole country is in drought, so is Vietnam, so is Thailand.” Wells and rivers have already dried up; people are having to spend their scarce cash on bottled water. People who have been out in the provinces report browning and desiccated rice crops in the paddies.

A lecturer in environmental studies told another paper: “Farmers who depend on rain-fed farming to grow their crops are going to face more disasters.” Rice production is expected to decline, leading to the migration of farmers to look for work in urban areas. Increased pressure will be put on urban infrastructure; food prices will escalate; malnutrition will be common.

The Ministry of Water Resources issued a notice in May, saying that heavy rain was not expected to begin until July. Well, July is pretty much over, and the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers are well below their usual levels for this time of year. Usually, in July and August, you curse the skies as they fill the streets ankle-deep with foul and fœtid water: not this year.

The rains could still come. And Cambodia has lived through droughts before, often contiguous with the occurrence of the El Niño warm water system in the eastern Pacific. But it is worth noting that the Angkor temple complex, the world’s largest pre-industrial city, the glory of Cambodia, is thought to have been abandoned due to drought in the early 15th century. So I hope people are taking this seriously. Because it’ll be dull if they’re not.

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A Sok Bun fight

July 19, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, local Cambodian property tycoon Sok Bun was having a quiet dinner in a Japanese restaurant with two local women and his bodyguard. Towards the end of the evening, he began to become frustrated that his not necessarily inconsiderable charms weren’t having the desired effect upon the ladies, and he began to become more insistent in his demands for some form of intimacy.

Real estate tycoon Sok Bun

Real estate tycoon Sok Bun

In an effort to rein in Sok Bun’s overenthusiasm, one of the ladies threw a mobile phone at him. He rather took offence at this, and responded by attacking the woman, slamming her head against the floor, kicking and pounding her skull and punching her, for some time. A terrified waiter tried to intervene, but was stopped by Sok’s bodyguard, who was waving a pistol at the head of the victim. Eventually, Sok was pulled off, and out of the restaurant.

Now, normally in Cambodia, this wouldn’t be an event of much note. Sok Bun is hugely wealthy, is an okhna (an honorific awarded to anyone who has given the government more than $100,000) and was chairman of the Cambodia Valuers and Estate Agents Association. He is precisely the sort of person who can get away with beating like a gong whomsoever he wishes.

Of all the terrible people in this lovely little country, property developers are probably the worst. The astronomical amounts of money to be made in the country’s overheating property market seem to attract a special type of scumbag, with thousands of families violently evicted from their makeshift homes for pointless building projects, shootings and stabbings, and even the throwing of venomous snakes into people’s houses to encourage them to move. All of this is widely accepted here.

But Sok Bun’s victim, in this case, was a bit savvier than usual. She managed, when she got out of hospital, to get CCTV footage of the attack, and she posted it on Facebook, where it quickly went viral. The victim is a well-known Cambodian TV personality known as Ms Sasa, and she wasn’t going to take this lying down. Already she has turned down two offers from Sok, of $40,000 and then $100,000, to drop the case, saying she wants justice, not money.

Sok Bun had, by this time, fled to Singapore, which probably isn’t the best place in the region to go if you want to escape the rule of law. He claimed to be suffering from some unspecified illness. But even Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen weighed in, saying: “Don’t think that because you have money you can escape,” and Sok flew back to Phnom Penh on Saturday, where he was arrested at the airport, and is now languishing in Prey Sar jail, awaiting trial. If Hun Sen has taken against him, then it’s not looking good.

Sok’s slightly unlikely arrest follows the April capture of another okhna, Thong Sarath, in Vietnam, for the murder of yet another okhna. While one shouldn’t take any pleasure from the sight of these fine, upstanding entrepreneurs starting to fight each other like rats in a sack, one has to wonder whether, with the resurgence of the opposition CNRP, they can see a day when impunity might not be automatic. One certainly hopes so.

Sok Bun's latest project, the $500 million The Bay hotel and apartment complex. It has been suggested that he also be arrested for crimes against architecture.

Sok Bun’s latest project, the $500 million The Bay hotel and apartment complex. It has been suggested that he also be arrested for crimes against architecture.

I’ve just got back to Phnom Penh after spending a couple of days in Bangkok with my absurdly generous and lovely brother. Although I’m less a fan of ‘Bangers’ since it became a proper world city, and not a collection of tin shacks on a bend in the river, as I used to know it, it is a surprisingly lovely place. People say that Phnom Penh is like Bangkok 20 years ago; I can’t really see that to be true. Phnom Penh will have to come a long way in the next two decades if it’s going to have a McDonalds’ or a 7-11 on every street corner – not that they’re particular signs of civilisation, of course.

We were staying at the Westin, which was extremely civilised. I had a suite big enough to park my Lear Jet in, if I hadn’t had to sell it to pay the taxi driver to take me into town. My brother had brought a number of gifts from the US, including a little stuffed pig for Harley the Wonder Dog, which he had been assured in the pet shop was indestructible. (It turns out to be highly destructible if you’re Harley.) I put the pig on one of any number of dressers; when I came back to the room later, housekeeping, thinking it might be lonely, had made a bunny rabbit out of a small towel and some orchid petals, and put them together. I thought that was a nice touch.

Bunny

On the first night we ate at a restaurant called Gaggan, which has just been voted as the 10th best restaurant in the world. It was quite an experience. We had the 24-course tasting menu, which is basically Indian food via molecular gastronomy, or molecular masala as someone called it, with lots of dry ice and intense half-remembered flavours, newly imagined. It was sensational, although I was flagging a bit by the time we got to course 20 or so.

The second night, we went to Nahm (number 22 on the world’s best restaurant list) and had god knows how many courses: probably a dozen or so. It was also stunning, although the chilli became a bit overwhelming towards the end, and (whisper it) Asian restaurants don’t do good desserts.

After that, it was back to reality: a budget flight back to Phnom Penh, a tuk-tuk through the rutted muddy streets and a cheese sandwich at home with Blossom and the dog. Bangkok is astonishing, but there’s really no place like home.