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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Very Special Species – The Cambodian Truck/Bus Driver

Driving along country roads or highways is always a white-knuckle experience. Not only do you have to live with Cambodian drivers that pass whether or not they have an unobstructed view ahead, but you also have the truck drivers that take special care to disregard any traffic regulation or law and common sense in moving their behemoths along Cambodia’s unsafe roads.

 I believe most container traffic moves between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville and vice versa. There are certain times when they either leave Phnom Penh (around 8 am) or Sihanoukville (around 11 am). If you need to go either way you best leave at around 6 am to go to Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh. You won’t have a lot of truck traffic either way at that time. On weekends leaving at 4 pm is also a good option to avoid most of the trucks. But you still have the intercity buses to contend with. They usually travel at faster speeds but their unpredictable maneuvers will be much the same. Don’t go at speeds of more than 100 km/h, especially before a corner in the road. There might be an oncoming car being passed or worse a truck being passed by another truck. If there is no shoulder you are in real trouble. I have seen many accidents where the car tried to swerve and ended up in a ditch, sometimes alongside the truck that also tried to avoid the head-on collision.

One would think straight-aways are the safest stretches until you see a bus/truck veering out from behind a truck on one of those. They just flash their lights claiming your lane for themselves and expecting you to brake down to an almost standstill or get on the shoulder if there is one. I have been traveling back and forth on National Road #4 for many years and have seen countless accidents. Especially accident prone stretches in my experience are the downhill or uphill stretch after Pich Nil coming from or going to Sihanoukville. You can see vehicles going uphill sometimes passing in two three lanes now that the road has been repaved – all going uphill, mind you. Another special stretch is after Sre Ambel. There are a lot of straight-aways but also some slight curves. It is very tempting to go a little faster for once. Don’t! Think ahead – see what I said above.

Then there is the oil palm tree plantation – very dangerous with the tractors hauling those huge coconuts at 5 km/h. These are only a few of many more on National Road #4 and, of course, others. I drive almost daily along a rather small country road from Sihanoukville to Stung Hao – the road that passes the ferry terminal to Koh Rong and going along so-called Hun Sen Beach. There is a village about 2 to 3 km after the main port. They hold their daily market from about 8 am to 10 am. It also happens that there is another pier for vessels unloading cement from Thailand and China located in that village. The entrance to that pier is right at the beginning of that market. Sometimes this narrow road is made even narrower by a vegetable refuse pile, not to mention the many motodups who park their bikes with the front wheel sticking into the road. Don’t think they have it in their mind to move an inch to make passage for the truck or any following cars easier. And don’t think that a policeman would be there to direct traffic. The station is about 50 m from that spot. That would make life too easy for everybody, now wouldn’t it?.Here is the spot:





 Now those fully laden trucks can’t go fast. But wait until you meet an empty one. They barrel along at least at 50 to 60 km/h through the second village after that one. Never mind there are little kids playing on the side of the road. And never mind that there is a school between these two villages that sort of blend into each other anyway. Cambodians in vehicles or on motorbikes always seem to be in a hurry. Passing is a national pastime. They do it with abandon. But the state of mind of Cambodian truck drivers is most apparent at the entrance to the port. At certain times of the week, I haven’t quite figured out the schedule, they line up before the entrance waiting for the gate to open; at least that’s what I think. Now this is what it looks like.



Need I say more? They block the main road, the access road, and the exit from the port. There are countless trucks, at least a hundred. They just park willy-nilly, get out of their cab with a bunch of papers for pre-clearance or whatever and just leave their truck for however long it takes with their paperwork. It obviously is each driver’s foremost aim to occupy each available space where his truck would fit. Leaving room for cars to pass through has never occurred to any of them. Why should they, with all lanes blocked in both directions anyway? Again, a policeman is nowhere to be seen. Sometimes a port guard tries to direct the trucks; mostly to no avail. Just yesterday on my way home I saw a truck jack-knifed – the cab in the roadside ditch pointing uphill, the trailer sitting sideways on the road blocking it except for the shoulder where we could pass through. That road to Stund Hao has a few sharp corners located at the bottom of a couple of hills. The trucks, both laden and empty, race down these hills at speeds of up to 90 km/h. Then they fly into that corner not thinking that their trailer might push off the road by the centrifugal force. This is exactly what happened to that truck we saw yesterday. Tela gasoline trucks look they are in pretty good condition – they travel this road all the time from the their depot. And they always go at pretty fast speeds. I am amazed that I haven’t seen one involved in an accident. The other tractor trailer trucks, however, are the greatest risk both to themselves and to the other vehicles on the road. Sometimes the trailer does faulty or no brakes. So if the driver goes into that corner too fast and starts to brake, the trailer will invariably veer off. Now if this happens with the road turning right that trailer will push into the oncoming lane – one can only hope that there is no other vehicle in that lane. Here some of those spots.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Khmer Chinese Funeral


The other day I attended a Khmer-Chinese funeral. My neighbor’s father-in-law had died at the ripe age of 96. Courtesy required that we pay our respects and extend our condolences. There is not much to be said about the funeral itself. A pig is roasted; food and fruit are prepared so the deceased has enough to take him/her over to the afterlife. The priest utters chants and incantations in Chinese.The family who kneel before the casket on command by the priest raise their hands with incense sticks wishing the deceased a good journey. This is done in turns beginning with the more removed family until finally it is the children’s turn. They also proffer the food by raising it several times, again in turns. Remarkably, for those who don’t know, the color of mourning in Buddhism is white. So the family are dressed completely in white, the guests wear a white blouse or shirt, preferably with a black skirt/pants.

Altogether, what struck me was the absence of solemnity. It all had more of a practical character. Each step in the procedure was carried out swiftly and rather unceremoniously – at least at this funeral.  This ceremony lasted about an hour. The casket is then lifted onto a hearse which is taken to the designated pagoda in a long procession of guests’ cars. My neighbor is a rather prominent person in Sihanoukville so the procession was impressively long. I would estimate at least a hundred cars and SUVs. A tent had been erected at the pagoda where the guests take a seat. The pig is carved up and offered on bread to them.

The deceased in Chinese funerals is interred whereas Khmer cremate them. There are no headstones but rather large vault-like tombs. The size depends on the wealth of the family.


In the last couple of frames you can see that in typical Khmer fashion they don’t pay particular attention to keeping a holy site clean. Trash is everywhere here too.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

It Couldn’t Be Any Clearer

The cat is out of the bag, so to speak. Some people may say this has been known a long time, but I think it has never been stated more unequivocally than recently. I am talking about the Prime Minister’s remark ostensibly directed at Sam Rainsy. This was reported in the press: “ I’m the only person who can order all the types of armed forces, and if I really die, you must pack your bags and run away … because no one can control the armed forces. It is an idiot who prays for Hun Sen’s death.”

This statement is not only unambiguous about today’s situation implying that Hun Sen is actually indispensable, irreplaceable really. It is also very intriguing for its insinuation what would happen if Hun Sen is no longer around, be it because of death or because he was defeated in an election. The implication is that the military would stage a coup returning either the CPP to power or maintain a status very similar to Thailand’s at the present time.  His warning implicitly says that Sam Rainsy and his party stalwarts are better off with him and better come to an agreement with him. The current state of affairs could become permanent as obviously there is no need for an opposition that has not taken their seats in the assembly. Certain circles might even be tempted to think that no further elections are necessary as the opposition will boycott the results anyway.

Another conclusion might be that even if the CNRP were to win the next election they could be unseated very quickly by the same means used in Thailand. The CNRP always points to foreign governments how they would condemn any more illegal maneuvers on the CPP’s part. But they should look at Thailand. Nobody even lifts a finger in support of any particular party there.

The powers that be are so entrenched in Cambodia that anything that would run counter to their interests would eventually lead to a clash with a CNRP government and their reforms. This clash can only end in a coup d’etat.


The road to reform is long, hard, and arduous; it must be navigated with circumspection and a willingness to tread lightly. Sam Rainsy just might not be the right person for that.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What To Do with A Cambodian Education

My step-son is about to graduate high-school in June. He is attending one of those private schools that sprang up like mushrooms in Cambodia, although this one has been around a few years. When we enrolled him there 2 years ago (after we had researched the background and interviewed the principal) we thought he is on the way to a better education than what he would get in a public school and would pave the way for a decent college education and a good job here after that.

In fact, he has been getting a better education insofar as they offer an English language curriculum; the Khmer classes are a sort of an add-on. The main emphasis there is on that international program. He had not been doing so great at the previous school (Zaman); he simply didn’t like it there.  Well, the change didn’t help much either. He did like his school in the U. S., but mostly for its athletic program. Academics is not his thing. Let’s just say he is not the best student.

Initially we also thought that he would graduate from a school that would have an internationally recognized diploma. Fact is that though the school had applied for international accreditation it obviously did not pass muster as now they simply bestow an in-house diploma on their students. Also, the sort of funny thing about this is that their 12th grade students shrank from initially 8 down to 3, 2 Koreans and he. Most of the more affluent parents had sent their children to Australia or the U. S. for their high school diploma. After paying dearly for this quasi-education we will be left with a diploma that is recognized only by a handful of Cambodian institutions. If he were to go abroad he would have to take an additional high school year and possibly graduation there to qualify for college admission;  this apart from being able to show qualifying SAT or ACT scores, which have become the yardstick internationally to prove one’s aptitude. I am sure many parents are faced with the same dilemma. Your offspring is an average student at best and now we need to search for something that both fits their abilities and, not the least, meets with their enthusiasm. For most young people it is hard enough to choose the right studies or profession. Most people change careers at least once, some twice or even three times, and that includes me.

Aggravating this whole situation is the fact that Cambodia’s job market does not really offer many opportunities for college graduates, not to mention just high school graduates. A simple high school diploma is not worth much in the West, so one can imagine what you can with a Cambodian diploma here.  After college, only the brightest will find a decent paying job.  They may even get a scholarship abroad.

Here again we can see one of the most striking failures of the government in the past decade. It has not invested in its education system. The population growth is quite remarkable as most families still regard the number of their children as a guarantee for their support when they have retired. A huge 52 % are younger than 24; that includes 31% under 14. This is the number of children that will be  and are in  need of an education and the jobs afterwards.  An unqualified  workforce does not attract qualified investors, that is, investors that would bring more than garment processing into the country. What we have seen is an emphasis on agriculture, which in itself is an important sector for Cambodia. But huge tracts of land have been granted to foreign, mostly Vietnamese, companies for rubber plantations. This industry does not provide qualified jobs (I know about that; I own one, albeit small). Is does not create added value to the economy either. Profits are repatriated and the workforce is below minimum wage labor.

Tourism is the next largest foreign exchange earner and provides about 20% of the jobs in the country. Again, this is minimum wage labor for the most part and the workforce is mostly unskilled and needs to be trained on the job. It is very hard to find halfway skilled employees in the hotel and hospitality business. Lower and middle management is usually recruited from expatriates, e. g. Filipino. The BA in tourism is not much to speak of. Graduates hardly know anything about accounting or marketing their product abroad. But they do know Angkor history.

All this leads me to believe that my initial estimate of a generation (about 20 to 25 years) it would take Cambodia to catch up with its Western neighbor needs to be recalculated.  After all, Thailand took about 30 years to raise itself from developing country to a threshold economy. Judging from the progress this past decade Cambodia, despite having made great strides in its overall development, will take more than those 30 years to emulate their neighbors. Too much precious time is lost in this most important field – education - for the future generations.


Coming back to my step-son;  considering this situation we are hard-put to point out the right direction to him. I must admit that I personally misjudged the prospects in Cambodia for younger people. We just may have to find a way to send him abroad for studies that will give him the tools to make a decent living when he comes back, if he then comes back at all.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Health Care - A Non-Existent Priority

I had written about some of this before under the title, “When you need a doctor”. This past week, my family and I were faced with a crisis. My step-daughter, aged 24, needed to be hospitalized in an emergency. She was suffering from abdominal pain and blood loss. She had first gone to one of those omnipresent neighborhood clinics. They gave her a drip and then just left her to her own devices. Nobody checked even further about the blood loss.  When we heard this we immediately had a friend of ours take her to the Calmette hospital emergency room. Needless to say, nobody would look at her until we had made payment for the initial exams. She was then admitted and taken to the gastro-enterology department where, you probably guessed it, she got hooked up to a drip. This is what they always do in Cambodia, whether needed or not. But they arranged for an immediate blood transfusion as the tests had shown some serious loss. If it had continued it could have led to her bleeding to death.

However, they first wanted to find a donor. When my friend told me about it I wondered how they could find someone with the same blood type so quickly. They do have a strange system in place here. Anybody can donate blood which is then exchanged at the blood bank for the badge with the right blood type. This way they ensure that the blood bank does not run out of blood. Obviously though, there aren’t enough donors. In an emergency you can hardly find a donor right away – so this is the big drawback to this system, and one is left to wonder whether they would just let the patient languish at the hospital and possibly let her/him die? We did have two donors available so never learned what they would do if we hadn’t.
They also performed a gastroscopy to determine the cause of her pain. The diagnosis wasn’t clear enough. When we talked to the doctor the next day he said he would conduct a CT scan and another gastroscopy and possibly a colonoscopy as well. It goes without saying that we needed to settle all the bills first. The room was $35 a night, exams, medication, etc., another $100. So we paid roughly $200 for two nights. The blood transfusions cost only $10, as we had provided the donors.

All planned tests and scopes would probably run to more than $500. The only thing that deterred us was that the physicians kept us waiting forever. When we showed up the next morning, no doctor was in sight. When none had showed up after an hour we just discharged our daughter ourselves. We would consult a private specialist. After all, all these procedures can be performed at a number of hospitals in Phnom Penh now.
We learned of one GI-specialist who had got his degree in France. He knew what needed to be done. Long story short, we did go to the Calmette again because they had the best anesthetic facilities. In the end, we had to cough up more than $1,000 for this treatment. This is still a downright bargain compared to the $7,000 you are charged in the U. S. as a self-paying patient, or the more than $4,000 the insurance would pay out.

What this amply demonstrates is the glaring lack of any functioning health care system in Cambodia. People who cannot afford this will be left out in the cold. One does not need to be a socialist, as the right-wing segment in America would say, to call for universal health coverage; and that is the government’s job and responsibility. There has been talk of such as system but so far only members of the armed forces get free health care. The quality of that I cannot assess but I wouldn’t be surprised if they lacked both basic knowledge and facilities. I know of one 1-star general who suffered from diabetes. They didn’t have enough insulin in stock. He had to rely on relatives to send money so he could buy it on his own. Eventually he died from complications.


The population in general cannot afford the $1000 per year or so it costs to buy some private health insurance policy. The coverage there is minimal to begin with. I say it again, from being a tolerant observer of this government I have turned into a very disenchanted bystander. They do build roads that are in serious disrepair after only a short while and schools that deliver a questionable education but one of the foremost jobs just isn’t even on the horizon.

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