Boiling a frog

June 1, 2016

Sometimes, life in Cambodia is a lot like that metaphor about boiling a frog: you think life is fine, and then all of a sudden you’re surrounded by police with AK-47s, and you realise it very much isn’t.

The police appeared around me as I was stuck in a traffic jam the other day, caused by opposition party protestors trying to present a petition to the king. I wasn’t particularly worried per se, but it is an ugly reminder of who has the power here.

The petition is the latest attempt to fight back against a rising tide of political oppression. It all stems from a stupidly obscure ongoing political story about the deputy leader of the opposition allegedly having an affair with a young woman. The judiciary apparently thinks he is guilty of being involved in prostitution and wants to arrest him, despite there being no evidence, and him having parliamentary immunity from arrest.

The petition calls for the king to step in and stop what’s widely seen as the ruling CPP using the alleged affair as a pretext for flimsy legal cases to neutralise its opponents via its control of the judiciary. Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy is already in self-imposed exile in Paris for the third time in his career.

NGOs say 29 people have been imprisoned so far, and call them ‘political prisoners.’ Even the normally supine European Union Delegation to Cambodia has expressed “deep regret” over the “dangerous political escalation” in recent days and called for “a halt to the judicial harassment of the acting leader of the opposition and representatives of civil society organizations.”

Meanwhile, there has been widespread hilarity after the government’s so-called ‘Cambodian Human Rights Committee’ tried to pass off snapshots of the Singapore skyline as those of pre-civil war Libya, in a propaganda video.

The video, with the wonderfully North Korean-style title Using Rights in an Anarchic Way stitches together a series of before-and-after photos of Syria and Libya, and warns that “the excessive use if [sic] rights will bring about destruction.”


The two war-torn states are a favourite of government officials who urge Cambodians not to ‘misuse’ their rights. Another great example of nuanced political thinking…

And finally, work on a private prison for rich criminals is to begin next month. The country’s interior minister said prisoners with money could pay to stay at the complex, which he described as being “like a hotel.” At the time, another official said the complex might suit the child of a tycoon who was accustomed to luxury. You just couldn’t make it up…


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.

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.

Friendship park

March 20, 2016

Most days, as well as walking Harley, the Jah Rastafardog, in the morning, I take him out in the late afternoon as well. I pick him up from his sister’s house, where he has been alternating between fighting and dozing all day, and we take a tuk-tuk to the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Park, which is about halfway home. We get dropped off at the south end, walk up through the park, pick up the same tuk-tuk at the northern end, then get taken home to collapse from heatstroke.

In the centre of the park is a huge monument, obviously to commemorate Cambodian-Vietnamese friendship. Which is ironic, as the Vietnamese built it shortly after invading the country, in 1979. And Cambodia and Vietnam aren’t really friends at all.


Around the monument is a large area paved with faux marble, which is considerably smoother than the paving in the rest of the park, or, in fact, anywhere else in Cambodia.

And its here, in recent months, that Cambodia’s skateboarders have begun to congregate late in the afternoon, during what is known here as ‘the golden hour’ (because the vast amounts of dust in the air make the sunset light a wonderfully warm gold) to take part in what they call the ‘Sunset Skate.’

It’s sweet to watch. Four years ago there was really very little youth culture in Phnom Penh apart from the insanely rich and spoiled kids racing each other on their Ducatis up and down the riverside. But now, as the country as a whole gets richer, more people have hobbies.

Of course, the majority of kids in Cambodia are still working in the rice fields or on sugar plantations, or in carwashes or at the dump. But there are a small number of people who, after school, can spend an hour or two socialising with their friends, flirting and skating and being young. There are some BMXs, and a few guitars, and everyone seems to be having a lovely time.

And, this being Asia, they are completely non-threatening. In the UK, if you came across a gang of 70 or 80 kids on the street, you’d put your head down and cross the road. Here, they’re entirely benign and unthreatening. And none of them smoke, or sniff glue. It’s as if they’re Singaporean clone children. And I mean that in a good way.

So Harley and I weave through the crowd, through the lengthening shadows, waving to the occasional friendly face, dodging the odd miscued skateboard, and for the second time in a day, I think to myself how different it is to Shepherd’s Bush Green.

And then I wonder how long it will be until the authorities ban it.

The lucky country?

March 15, 2016

I’m thinking of retraining, giving up my gilded life as a journalist, and becoming an Australian politician. Mainly because the barriers seem so inexpressibly low. Apparently you can be dumber than a box of rocks, and still get paid by the Australian taxpayer to make horrendous decisions on their behalf. I mean, I’m stupid, have awful table manners and irritate almost everyone I meet. But I’m still a better human being than most Australian politicians today.

If you want proof, just look at the much-vaunted A$55-million refugee deal between Australia and Cambodia, which saw a grand total of five  people sent to live in Cambodia, from the Pacific hellhole of Nauru, where they had been detained on their way to a better life. For A$55 million to the Cambodian government.

A few months ago, a Rohingya, from the most oppressed class in Burma, a country not famous for its even-handed treatment of minorities, decided to go back, as he was ’homesick.’ I have a great deal of difficulty in getting my head wrapped around how unhappy you’d have to be in the Kingdom of Wonder to voluntarily choose to relocate to the most prejudiced place on the planet. But he did.

And now, two Iranian refugees who were transferred to Cambodia have returned to Iran voluntarily. A spokesman for idiot Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirmed last week that the husband and wife had left Cambodia.

Australian Senator Sarah Hansen Young has called for the country’s auditor-general to investigate millions spent “to grease the wheels of a corrupt regime, so that the government can dump a handful of people in an impoverished country”.

Of the two refugees left in the country, one says he feels abandoned and fears he will die in Cambodia. “I feel unwell, lonely and sad,” Mohammed Rashid, a 26-year-old Rohingya Muslim, told Fairfax Media while lying on the floor of a decrepit house in a Phnom Penh suburb. “I fear that I will die here.”

Rashid said promises made by Australian officials remain unfulfilled, including offers of help setting up a restaurant, accommodation and an $8,000 cash payment. He sleeps alone in an International Organisation for Migration office, despite Australia paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent a luxury villa in a Phnom Penh suburb for three years.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said: “It was a classic Phnom Penh sting job on a donor: get the money upfront but don’t concede the operational control over the project – and then stall or obfuscate until you get the outcome you want, which in this case was only a handful of refugees.”

Peter Dutton’s spokesperson said in a statement: “The Government remains committed to supporting the Government of Cambodia to implement settlement arrangements in Cambodia and encourages refugees temporarily in Nauru to explore this settlement option.”

The Mighty Penh’s spokesperson says: “Peter Dutton is one of the stupidest men on the planet. How is it that Australians are satisfied by being represented by these losers? The mind boggles.”





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.


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.


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.


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.

Sad Khmer Times

January 20, 2016

Despite Phnom Penh being, in anyone’s terms, a small town, it currently boasts three English-language newspapers. Three! That’s more than in Hong Kong, which has five times the population and rather more English language speakers. And rather more news, too.

Of course, none of Phnom Penh’s English newspapers sells very many copies: the Phnom Penh Post, the biggest and the best, shifts perhaps 5,000 copies a day, most of which seem to go to cafés and bars and the reception areas of larger companies. The Cambodia Daily looks like it’s printed on an A4 mimeograph machine, although it occasionally breaks a story, but generally lifts its content from proper broadsheet newspapers around the world. And then there’s the Khmer Times.

The Khmer Times is the creation of a Malaysian Indian called T. Mohan, and it’s a most eccentric thing. It started off very small, and only published once or twice a week. Over the last 18 months or so it has grown in size and confidence. It was originally edited and written by people with not a vast amount of journalistic experience (the deputy editor insisted on putting the letters PhD on her byline; the chief sub was a former car mechanic). But it now comes out five or six days a week, and has poached lots of half-way competent staff from the other papers.

I used to work there occasionally, doing extremely well-paid subbing shifts. I once edited the entire paper in a four-hour shift. But, like most people, I didn’t enjoy it much. And one of the reasons was Mohan’s copy.

Two or three times a week, Mohan would write articles for the paper, and, as the most senior sub there, I would have to edit them. As well as owning the Times, Mohan also owned a stack of economic land concessions (ELCs) in the south of Cambodia, as many wealthy people do. Basically, foreigners come in and buy huge chunks of the countryside, inserting a monoculture (rubber, sugar and so forth) on the land and sitting back and getting richer. Mohan, in his pieces, was often extremely voluble about the political situation in Cambodia, and how this affected his ELCs. So he would write 1,000-word pieces slamming the opposition. Or discussing root diseases in the cassava plant. Both of which were equally interesting to your average reader.

When faced with one of his anguished screeds, I would just roll up my sleeves and largely rewrite them so that they made a modicum of sense, grammatically, if not politically.

Which is why I’m delighted to see that none of the pieces I worked on have made it into ‘The Mohan Scandal,’ after it turned out that almost all of Mohan’s copy was directly lifted from other places: mainly Malaysian political bloggers, but also students, journalists, academics and even a priest. This has all been well covered by a local website which has mounds of evidence against Mohan. He seems to have just lifted entire columns and changed ‘Malaysia’ to ‘Cambodia,’ while swapping out the names of local politicians.

The website then looked at the Letters to the Editor, and discovered that not one single person named as having written in to the Khmer Times seems to exist in real life. Not one. Certainly, when I was there, I never saw the source of any letters. Most people assume Mohan wrote them.

Cue much hilarity around Phnom Penh. While no one knows who precisely is funding the Khmer Times, there have been dark whispers about government money behind Mohan. The man himself was forced to withdraw from writing for the paper, and they issued a sour and mealy-mouthed apology.

While this is funny, if you don’t work for the Khmer Times, it’s also sad. Oh, Cambodia. You couldn’t make it up. (Not if stealing it was easier.)


With thanks to

The great whitewash

December 27, 2015

There’s been a bit of an uproar in Phnom Penh in the last few days, after city authorities painted over a recently-created mural in the centre of town.

The White Building is an iconic 450 metre-long part of the fabric of the city, and is known to everyone who has spent any time here. It was designed as social housing in 1963 by architect Lu Ban Hap, and since then has become ever-more dilapidated, filthy and disreputable. Nevertheless, it is much loved by those who live there: prostitutes, drug dealers, artists, social campaigners, charity workers and working families. It has been hymned by the New York Times, Slate and Salon in recent months, and is widely regarded as a wonderful example of a New Khmer building.


A couple of weeks ago, an American artist called Miles “El Mac” MacGregor painted a 10-metre green and black portrait on the side of the White Building, of a woman called Moeun Thary, who is a seamstress and resident of the building. The project was paid for by millionaire US artist David Choe, and was wildly popular, and rather beautiful.


The mural, and Moeun Thary.

But, best laid plans and all that: it turns out that despite asking for municipal permission, and spending some $2,000 on permits, the artist and his team had only got verbal permission before starting work. And if you know Cambodia, you’ll know that that’s not worth the paper it’s written on. So after the mural had been up for about a week, City Hall came along and painted over it. Seamstress Moeun said she was sorry to see the painting go, and said that she thought that the mural showed a woman’s strength in supporting her family.


It can’t seem to be anything than a giant ‘fuck you’ to artists, women’s rights groups, those working for the poor and underprivileged and those who like to see a more vibrant and colourful city generally. And in a town that is blanketed with huge and garish advertisements for beer and motorcycles featuring half-naked women, it seems petulant, churlish and politically counterproductive.

Artist El Mac had approached the project in the right spirit. “I hope this mural can serve as a respectful tribute to the importance and perseverance of Cambodia’s creative legacy, and possibly, in some small way, offer inspiration for younger Cambodian artists to sustain this legacy,” he said, before the mural’s defacement.

He went on to say: “Since I had the opportunity to paint such a large, visible wall in a place where there are seemingly no other large-scale murals like it, I felt an extra sense of responsibility to paint something beautiful, meaningful, and uplifting.”

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that the authorities have no reason to apologise. “We are the people who obeyed and implemented the rule of law; they painted without permission,” he said. “We cannot say sorry.”

Spokesman Long later declined to comment on another popular mural which the authorities want to remove. Clearly frazzled by having to defend his political masters’ obdurate stupidity, he was quoted as saying: “I am not able to give an answer for this case and I wish to request that journalists stop writing this useless story.”