A royal flush

February 28, 2016

Cambodia’s latest foray into the pages of the world’s press is perhaps a little unfair on the country itself. Usually the country and its gang of bandit overlords can bring the country into disrepute without any help from the rest of the world.

But this time, the (probably) unwitting protagonist is Thai princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, for whom a Thai building company spent $40,000 building her a lavatory in Cambodia. To be used by her precisely once.

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And in fact, she never used it at all. But she did look around it. So that’s OK.

The toilet is located near Yeak Lom lake in Ratanakiri province, in the northeast of the country, where the princess was whisked by helicopter to begin her three-day visit to Cambodia last week.

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The lavatory, housed in a freestanding outhouse measuring eight square metres, is fully air-conditioned, took two weeks to build and apparently cost 66 times the average annual salary in Cambodia.

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The lavatory was constructed by a Thai firm called Siam Cement Group, who are reportedly owned by the Thai royal family. So the princess was merely spending her own money on building her own crapper. And the Thai royals are not short of money: Forbes reckons the king is the richest royal on earth, and worth some $30 billion.

My problem isn’t with Sirindhorn. If she wants to spend obscene amounts of her own money buying bogs she won’t use, than that’s fine. It’s the servility that gets me. It’s well known that the queen of England thinks that everyone’s bathroom smells of fresh paint, because that’s all she ever smells. Why do we take these people seriously?

A majority of Cambodia’s population has trouble using any toilets at all.

Some 33 percent of schools nationwide have no toilet facilities at all, according to the Cambodian ministry of education. NGOs estimate that the figure could be as high as 80 percent in areas like Ratanakiri.

But after the princess left Yeak Lom, her special commode was thrown out and the building is being converted into an office for local officials. A manager from SCG said: “Normal people can’t use a [royal] toilet.” Hmmn.

 

A dog’s life

February 15, 2016

This morning, I was walking Harley, the Hammer of the Dogs, at the very ungodly hour of dawn. It’s the best time of day to go for an hour-long walk around Phnom Penh: you get weird Western joggers, and bar girls sloping home unloved, construction workers soaping themselves under random spigots, people selling little bags of corn for tourists to feed to the mangy pigeons, early-morning photographers, drunken sexpats, and, sometimes, for the purposes of my story, dog walkers.

At this time of year, the temperature can drop – almost – dramatically, and twice in the last two weeks, we’ve seen 19C, or 66F, in the early mornings. Which is a delight. They haven’t swept most of the streets yet at that time of day, so there’s plenty of crap for the Aweful Harley to Hoover up when I’m not looking, which, to be honest, is most of the time: my interest being in watching the sun rise gloriously over the Mekong. And then going back to bed.

Super-Wolf Harley gets to meet his little doggie pals of a morning, and bite them. And I hang out with their owners. Which is, if you like dogs, an unmitigated pleasure. There’s Tish and Joe. Lily and Valentine. Julia and Marlow. Shaan and Ivy. Sarah and Zeke. Christine and Hunter. I’ve met most of central Phnom Penh’s expat dogs. And they’re all pretty fine.

But this morning, I met new Khmer lady walking a new dog, a sweet brindled mutt. We got talking, the usual complaints about the local vets and the excellence of dogs with brindled coats. And then, two minutes later, we were discussing Khmer Rouge atrocities that she had experienced.

I don’t know how we got on to that. She was 15 when the KR overran Phnom Penh. She described, with awful clarity, her two-year-old brother dying in her arms on the march to Battambang. She had to crawl over a football-pitch-sized field of dead bodies to make it to Thailand, before being sent, as an orphan, to live in Australia. And all of this presented coolly and matter-of factly, without a trace of self-pity.

I got home, reeling from what I’d heard. I don’t know why this was. There are plenty of people in Cambodia who can tell you similar, or worse stories. Some people are happy to talk about it; many will never bring it up. I think it might have been the contrast between the prosaic quotidian morning shuffle around the palace, and the absolute horror of the woman’s story. It just reminded me, yet again, of the terrible things this country saw, and how relaxed people can be about it. You don’t get that on Shepherds’ Bush Green.

Driving me insane

February 5, 2016

At the turn of the year, the king signed into law a new set of rules governing traffic rules and regulations in Cambodia. Probably the most eye-catching of these was the decision that the police would be allowed to keep 70 percent of anything they made in fines.

Of course, previously the police kept 100 percent of everything they made. Half of the traffic problems in this country were caused by people running away from police roadblocks, which always makes me laugh. The police just shrug and wait for the next dozy sucker to come along. But the new law does give a veneer of legitimacy to police efforts to curb the scourge of crap drivers, and the police have taken to it with gusto.

Police apparently pulled over more than 45,000 vehicles and collected almost $100,000 in fines in the first week of enforcing the new traffic laws. Which is $70,000 for them. Not bad work if you can get it. Coming back from Kampot last weekend, we passed four sets of police working on fleecing motorists, over the course of 140 kilometres. That’s pretty impressive, really.

To ease the public’s pain over the new rules, Prime Minister Hun Sen surprised the nation by arbitrarily scrapping the need for people to have a driving license for bikes under 125cc. In many ways, this won’t make much of a difference, as no one has a license anyway. But the vast majority of people here ride little bikes, and telling them they don’t need a licence is tantamount to lighting the blue touchpaper and then not retiring.

I’ve seen four motorcycle accidents in the past week; none of which were fun. In one, a woman was busy texting and swerved into the opposite lane. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. And neither was her eight-year-old son, on the back.

Of course, not everyone is that colossally stupid. Most drivers support tougher laws. But many of them say that it would be better to enforce them at night. The police only really work during daylight hours, having homes and families to go to, obviously, leaving the roads open to people without lights, huge lorries trying to avoid paying to drive through Phnom Penh, road racers and drunks.

And speaking of road racers, I was appalled to see a kid in Kampot last weekend pulling a wheelie on a Ducati at about 80 mph going up the main thoroughfare. I voiced my opinion, and Blossom leaned over to me. “You know what? You’re too old.” And I expect she’s probably right.