Hot, hot heat

April 29, 2016

It’s hot. If you’re in Southeast Asia, you’ll know this. Anywhere else, you probably will not. But it’s really hot here. Cambodia has just seen its highest ever temperature, of 42.6C/108.7F. Laos and Vietnam have also both set records. Now, if you’re shivering in the UK in the snow, you’ll probably be envious. But don’t bother. Because it’s brutal here.

I don’t much mind the heat, generally, although I sweat prolifically (sweating like a rapist, as Australians so charmingly put it). But I’m sick of the heat. You stick to furniture. I’ve got a towel under my mouse-arm as I type this. You get very short-tempered. Your beer gets tepid in seconds. You get even more bad-tempered.

But the boring minutiae of everyday life aren’t important. What is important is the fact that people are going to start dying very soon. In fact, they already are. In Phnom Penh it has only rained once so far this year, for five minutes. The rainy season is supposed to start in June: experts say it may not arrive until July or August. Which would be a disaster.

In Malaysia, they’ve shut hundreds of schools because of the heat. Thai people have been told to stay indoors and drink plenty of water. Here in Cambodia, 18 out of 25 provinces say they are experiencing a drought. Several provinces say that tens of thousands of people are at extreme risk in the next 10 days without something being done. An elephant died of heatstroke carrying tourists around Angkor Wat. Sixty-five tonnes of fish in a lake died because the water was too warm. Rivers are about 80 percent below their usual levels. Cattle are dying. Rice and fruit farmers are crying out for help. Famine is a real possibility.

These worries were brought home to me yesterday when our taps ran dry, and I couldn’t have a shower. You start thinking about the end of the world when you can’t brush your teeth. I was mapping out scenarios in my head of how to flee the country if the water runs out. Luckily, it’s back on now, but it was a worry.

In the midst of all this, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been playing politics, warning opposition parties that they have to help the people of this country with access to water, or the people will remember when they come to vote in commune elections next year. Quite what they’re supposed to do is unclear, not having access to the levers of power that the government does.

So we carry on, sweating and worrying and huddling up to the fan, and open another beer. That won’t run out for a while, I hope.

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City of no facilities

April 19, 2016

I took our tuk-tuk driver Setain to the clinic the other day. This involved sitting around for a spell, a period of gabbling in Khmer between Setain and some doctor-type people, Setain being given a plethora of pills, and me paying the surprisingly ample bill. I hope that doesn’t sound paternalistic or patronising: we genuinely like Setain, and despite us paying him pretty well, he probably couldn’t afford decent medical help without going to a loan shark. So we’re happy to help.

It turns out that the poor bloke has kidney stones, mainly due to him not urinating enough. And that’s no great surprise. As a tuk-tuk driver, he, like every other driver, and hundreds of thousands of other people in Phnom Penh, has no access to public toilets. Setain is a man of great dignity and pride, and would hate to be spotted pissing against a wall. That’s not the case for every Cambodian. It’s an utterly unremarkable sight to see men angled up against walls, all over the city: no one thinks twice about it. Which only adds to the general pungency of Phnom Penh, especially during the dry season.

There is a tree on a side street next to the Royal Palace a few metres from the main thoroughfare. In the evenings and at weekends, thousands of people congregate on the maidan opposite the palace to hang out with their families and drink beer. Which means that the tree gets visited probably a couple of hundred times a day by micturating men. I have to keep Harley well away from it in the mornings, but, to be honest, I think he finds it a bit overwhelming. He’s only a little dog.

And it gets worse. The only park in the city, again, just yards from the palace, is used for more, er, textural deposits. There is a little sign on the way in which says ‘No Defecation’, but for some reason it’s in English, and I would imagine that English speakers crapping in a park in Phnom Penh’s central business district isn’t a huge problem. Nevertheless, the margins of the park, and the surrounding gutters are studded with coprolites.

And what do the women do? I have absolutely no idea. Not a clue. It must be magic.

Now, the provision of public toilet facilities has, as far as I know, never been an issue in Cambodia: there are far more pressing and urgent things to worry about. But I have noticed recently that city authorities have replaced almost every street sign, city-wide, with new and fancy ones. And in the Cambodian-Vietnamese park, a short walk to the south, they’ve replaced the edgings around the patches of grass: they were formerly concrete; now they’re beautifully milled granite. Neither of these jobs can have been cheap. One has to wonder about their priorities, if only to keep Setain out of the clinic and on the road.