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.


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.

Watery Festivities

November 10, 2014

Phnom Penh is situated where three major rivers meet, forming (if you squint a bit) a giant X on the map. Obviously, if you’re going to have a capital city, it makes sense to have access to fresh water and a great transport network (Only Mexico City, Riyadh and Tehran ignore this, I believe).


Of the rivers, the Mekong is the most famous, but the Tonle Sap is perhaps the most interesting. It flows out of Tonle Sap lake, the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. But twice a year, the river changes its direction of flow: from November to May, the river drains into the Mekong and thence to the sea, via Vietnam. But in the wet season, usually June to November, the Mekong instead drains northwards, up the Tonle Sap, into the lake.


The Cambodians, being a celebratory sort of people, mark the change of flow with a huge three-day festival, called, naturally enough, the Water Festival, which has just ended. It’s the first time I’ve seen it; in 2010 more than 350 people were crushed to death on a bridge in central Phnom Penh, so they cancelled it for a while (also the king died, and they had disputed elections in intervening years).

In the past, it has been hugely popular with the people of Cambodia: every major town sends a boat to compete in the dragonboat races, and the population of Phnom Penh was estimated to double with the influx of visitors, by about two million extra people. This year, the numbers were down quite markedly: a lot of people wouldn’t let their children come, because of the 2010 stampede. So rather than a terrible crush, crowds were manageable, and it was a happy and relaxed occasion.


Blossom and I managed to score up a rather magnificent flat on the riverside overlooking the races, and we drank beer in the shade and watched the 240 teams, often with 80 people on a boat, pounding up and down the Tonle Sap. It was colourful and faintly soporific, and a genuinely pleasant experience. Crowds milled around, vendors dodged police patrols to sell noodles and cakes and fruit, bands played and there were Ferris wheels and kickboxing displays and fireworks and everyone drank far too much and a good time was had by all.

But on the second morning, it was my turn to walk the awful dog, so I was up at dawn, being dragged around the riverside. And I was genuinely appalled to see the gangs of street cleaners collecting huge mounds of trash – the concept of recycling not having entirely caught on here yet – and pushing them straight into the river, to be carried off to the sea. It didn’t seem so much fun after that. [Sigh…] Oh, Cambodia…

Preah Vihear

November 11, 2013

The United Nations has finally ruled on a disputed piece of land surrounding a famous temple in the far north of Cambodia, saying that the Thais must withdraw from the area, as it belongs to Cambodia. At least, that’s what I could work out from listening to the tedious verbiage that the International Court of Justice decorated its decision in – some people are saying that there is still a chunk of land they didn’t rule on.

The temple complex, called Preah Vihear, is miles from anywhere, and not many people get up there: I haven’t yet made it. It is spectacularly located, on the top of a 1,700-foot cliff, and construction began in the ninth century. I’m desperate to go. But it’s quite dangerous: 18 people died in military clashes there in 2011 after the Thais and Cambodians both asserted their sovereignty over the area, and many people expect more fighting this time.

The Bangkok Post is claiming that Cambodia has introduced more than a thousand plain-clothed “temple security guards” armed with AK-47s to the temple complex; this weekend the chief of Cambodia’s military called an emergency meeting after Thai aircraft were seen flying low around the disputed land.

A 1962 verdict by the International Court of Justice declared the temple Cambodian, but didn’t rule on the 4.6 kilometre area surrounding it. Cambodia sought a clarification in 2011, after fighting erupted.

Thanks to the BBC

Thanks to the BBC

Cambodia has a right to get a bit shirty about its neighbours trying to claim its territory. If you go into Thailand from Koh Kong province, you quickly notice how there’s this weird long and thin strip of valuable coastline that is supposedly Thai territory; to the north it’s all Cambodia. And at the other end of the country, visitors to Kep look out over the beautiful island of Phu Quoc, just 10 kilometres from Cambodia and some 40 kilometres form Vietnam, which administers it.

But analysts note that Thailand is in a precarious position, politically. “For Thailand, the ICJ decision on Preah Vihear comes at a critical juncture,” Thai political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak told a local newspaper. “Any change in the status quo would play into the hands and perhaps become the key catalyst of the anti-Thaksin/anti-government protesters in Bangkok. They … could well be for a government overthrow next week if the ICJ rules against Thailand.”

Of course, over the last 1,500 years, the three countries have ebbed and flowed over the maps here as warring kingdoms have advanced and retreated. But Cambodia has suffered more in recent years, and Preah Vihear is an important part of the country’s pride and self-image.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

Ding dong, etc

April 9, 2013

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rides a tank in 1986

So Margaret Thatcher has finally died. As a child in Britain in the 1980s, I had, like almost everyone, fairly strong feelings about her, and what she did to the country. But this is a Cambodia-centric blog, so I won’t go on about her, except in relation to the situation here. And, it has to be said, she didn’t cover herself in glory.

After the liberation of Cambodia by Vietnamese forces in 1979, the US, who were not best pleased at having had their asses handed to them during the “American War”, as they call it in Vietnam, continued to do everything they could to stymie the Viet Cong. And this included continuing to support Pol Pot’s dementedly murderous Khmer Rouge. This is despite them having killed a third of the innocent population of Cambodia.

Thatcher’s stance was clear – Britain did not recognise the new communist Vietnamese government in Cambodia. So between 1985 and 1989, Britain’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) ran a series of training camps for Khmer Rouge allies in Thailand close to the Cambodian border and created a ‘sabotage battalion’ of 250 experts in explosives and ambushes. Intelligence experts in Singapore also ran training courses.

Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that the British training for the members of the ‘coalition’ had been going on “at secret bases in Thailand for more than four years”.

The instructors were from the SAS, “all serving military personnel, all veterans of the Falklands conflict, led by a captain”.

The Cambodian training became an exclusively British operation after 1986.

“If Congress had found out that Americans were mixed up in clandestine training in Indochina, let alone with Pol Pot,” a Ministry of Defense source told Simon O’Dwyer-Russell of the Sunday Telegraph, “the balloon would have gone right up. It was one of those classic Thatcher-Reagan arrangements. It was put to her that the SAS should take over the Cambodia show, and she agreed.”

In 1991, journalist John Pilger interviewed a member of ‘R’ Squadron of the SAS, who had served on the border. “We trained the KR in a lot of technical stuff – a lot about mines,” he told him.

“We used mines that came originally from Royal Ordnance in Britain, which we got by way of Egypt with marking changed … we even gave them psychological training. At first, they wanted to go into the villages and just chop people up. We told them how to go easy.”

A report by Asia Watch filled in some details: the SAS had taught “the use of improvised explosive devices, booby traps and the manufacture and use of time-delay devices”.

The author of the report, Rae McGrath (who shared a joint Nobel Peace Prize for the campaign on landmines), wrote in the Guardian that “the SAS training was a criminally irresponsible and cynical policy”.

The former SAS soldier Chris Ryan, now a best-selling author, lamented that “when John Pilger, the foreign correspondent, discovered we were training the Khmer Rouge in the Far East [we] were sent home and I had to return the £10,000 we’d been given for food and accommodation”.

It is fashionable in many circles to loathe John Pilger, but not many Cambodians do. As he put it: “Henry Kissinger, whose bombing opened the door to the nightmare of Year Zero, is still at large. Cambodians remain desperately poor, dependent on an often seedy tourism and sweated labour.  For me, their resilience remains almost magical. In the years that followed their liberation, I never saw as many weddings or received as many wedding invitations. They became symbols of life and hope. And yet, only in Cambodia would a child ask an adult, as a twelve-year-old asked me, with fear crossing his face: ‘Are you a friend? Please say.’”

Oh dear. And it was all going so well. Cambodia has been convulsed with delight over its chairmanship this year of the 10-nation Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). International exposure and legitimacy for the kingdom!

But sadly, it has got the exposure, but not the legitimacy. In fact, it has ended up looking distinctly small-time, a lickspittle satellite of the political bruiser to the north: China.

To put it bluntly, Cambodia is China’s bitch. China’s direct investment in Cambodia was $1.2 billion in 2011, almost 10 times that of the US, according to the government.

And what China really, really wants is most of the South China Sea, including bits that are only a few miles from the shores of ASEAN states like the Philippines and Vietnam. Disputes over the territory, which may well be bloated with oil, have been simmering for years. ASEAN wants to present a united front against China’s territorial claims; China wants to split the grouping. And $1.2 billion a year buys you a lot of splitting.

So ASEAN foreign ministers met last week in Phnom Penh, with the South China Sea one of the most pressing issues. And Cambodia, predictably, buckled to Chinese pressure and tried to keep the matter off the agenda.

At one point, when Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario began to raise the issue, his microphone went dead. Just a  ‘technical glitch’, said Cambodia, to widespread disbelief.  At another point, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan was reportedly cut off in mid-address by Hor Namhong, Cambodia’s foreign minister, as he tried to bring up the topic. For the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history, the bloc failed to come up with a closing statement, which, for ASEAN, is practically unthinkable.

Reuters quoted a diplomat as saying “It was one of the most heated meetings in the history of ASEAN,” while another described Cambodia, as “the worst chair.”

This actually matters a great deal. Last month Beijing said it had begun “combat-ready” patrols around waters claimed by Vietnam. These people are not messing around. Conflict could happen at any time. And poor, stupid, greedy Cambodia has been made to look shockingly inept at the same time.

Perhaps if some of China’s money was washing around the impoverished countryside, helping to make Cambodians’ lives better, then that would be one thing. But, somehow, it is not. There are a lot of Lexuses on the streets of Phnom Penh though. Armani is believed to be opening a shop here soon. But taxi drivers only make $4 a day and children are dropping dead of easily preventable diseases. Some people have a lot to answer for.