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Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Very Special Species – The Cambodian Truck/Bus Driver II

Normally, I wouldn’t write about accidents and publish gruesome pictures of them. But this accident ties in directly with the previous post on the subject.

This accident happened in Sihanoukville yesterday. I drove by just after it had happened.  DAP News reports it like this:

The truck came along National road number 4 and was speeding across the intersection at the two Sokha and Tela gas stations. A little further on  the road is full of potholes and motorbikes and cars need to slow down to a crawl. The truck was oblivious to that and hit a motorcycle at high speed, subsequently panicked, veering left and right, running over pedestrians. An oncoming passenger tried to avoid the truck and in the process crossed the road and drove into a low-lying field. The truck meanwhile hit three or four more motorbikes and then crashed into a power line mast. The result: 9 people dead and an unknown number sustained serious injuries. The driver was unharmed and taken into custody.

Cause of accident: a speeding drunk driver.

I say it again, these people don’t know how to handle a truck. Driving along smaller country roads at night is so dangerous I can only advise people against it. When it rains this is almost like a suicide mission. The roads have no markings, the drivers don’t know the width of their trucks, and the chance that they sideswipe you is very high. One can only hope that there is no drunk driver behind the wheel.

Pictures lifted from DAP – News website.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Here is one good example of the way Cambodians think. I have a 4-MB Internet connection serving about 10 users on average. Recently, when I went to pay my monthly subscription of $85 the customer service rep showed me a special offer pitched at the time providing a 6-MB connection at $65 a month.  The deposit for that deal was only $30. When I signed the initial subscription agreement I paid a $85 deposit. So switching seemed like a no-brainer, right?

The otherwise friendly and helpful lady came up with the following tally:

Usage for the past month                           $85
I got a credit for downtime                         $12
Fee for the new month                               $65

Total                                                         $138 payable right now.

Normally, I can pay my bill until the 22nd of the following month.  So I figured out the number a little differently.

I pay $19 on the 22nd of following month ($85 less $12, less $55 credit for difference in deposit) and the regular $65 for the changed subscription the month after that.

Now this is what any normal thinking person would expect, now is it? But not at Metfone in Sihanoukville. First, I can’t get back part of my deposit, second I have to pay for the usage of the past month immediately (without the usual grace period) when I change my agreement, and I also have to pay the new fee right away. Before, I did not need to do that. When I pointed that out she said this is company policy and the only way she would handle that.  After kicking this around with her a couple of times, it was obvious she wouldn’t budge from her position. Although she had already decided on her own to give me that credit for downtime without authorization from her boss. So she obviously did have some leeway.

When I asked what I needed to do to get my $55 overpaid deposit back she offered me the most ridiculous solution I have seen in a long time. I should cancel my subscription. I would then get my full deposit of $85 back after about 2 weeks. We draw up a new agreement, I pay a new installation fee of $30, plus the new deposit of $30. When I pointed out that I already did have a working connection in place, she just said that’s the only way we could do it. Any amount of reasoning could not make her change her position. Of course, in the meantime she had maneuvered herself in a corner from which she couldn’t come out without losing considerable face, in front of a foreigner at that.

I just left her sitting there, promising when next in Phnom Penh I would just go to the head office. That made her even less friendly. Now guess what? Next weekend I needed to go to PP anyway and, lo and behold, all it took for them was to change my subscription in the computer from the old to the new rate with the increased bandwidth; and that was it. No payment, no hassle. Who would have thought that?

But nothing is without a catch in Cambodia. I expected the new speed to be available after a couple of days or so. Not so. After 10 days we still didn’t have our faster speed available. So I called to complain. Well, I had to go to the office in Sihanoukville to sign a work order so they would change it in their server.  The service at this company is really rotten; but they are by far the cheapest. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dentists Without Borders

These past two weeks we were host to a group of Danish dentists and dental students in their final year. This group had chosen Cambodia for this year’s campaign to help developing nations  with poor health and dental care. I had written about the poor and practically non-existent public health care system in Cambodia before. So they couldn’t have made a better choice. As things go and all things considered, the 2 weeks were a mere drop in the bucket and they were limited to one village. It is one great symbol of how philanthropy works though, coming from people without the material means of millionaires or even billionaires, for whom it is easy to donate a couple of million here and there.

The villagers made good use of the free service and came in throngs, especially during the first week. This again goes to show how deplorable the government’s handling of public affairs, in this case health care, really is. When will governments in developing countries ever learn that building up a military is definitely not one of the top priorities? Health care, education, and infrastructure, including electricity, roads, etc. should be their main concern. But again, this government seems to believe that the development of the country is in better hands with civil society organizations or the private sector.

All the more admirable are the efforts of such foreign volunteers as this Danish group who use part of their vacation time to come and help destitute people. As altruistic as they are, they also pay their own way, e. g. airline tickets, hotel accommodation, and meals. You need firm convictions to go to such lengths to help other people. In Cambodia they cooperate with the One-2-One NGO Go to their website to learn more about them. This NGO selects the village and makes all preparations for the dentists once they arrive. They will also provide the help needed to make the performance of the dental services as smooth as possible. They use the village and a school there, in this case Ream, coordinate it with the principal and the teachers who will inform the students and their parents. From then on it is word of mouth, which is very effective in the countryside, especially once the locals learn it is free of charge. The villagers are taught how to use a toothbrush properly, learn to do it at least twice a day, and learn about which food to avoid and which is good not only for their teeth but general health as well.

We must all take our hats off to those nice, friendly, and unselfish people. The leader of the group, Mr. John Christensen, is a 76-year-old former professor of dentistry at the University of Copenhagen. Our compliments to all of them.

This charity covers a number of underdeveloped countries. If you would like to donate to their cause you can do this on their website.  

(By the way, did you know that the Danish people are the most satisfied, not to say happiest, people in the world according to an index that is compiled an annual basis. There are downsides to life in Denmark too, for sure, but all in all quality of life must be pretty good there.)

Initial check-up

Initial check-up

One-2-One Assistant

Converted school room into treatment room

Sterilized instruments

Waiting patients



Getting ready


Assistent from One-2-One NGO


One of the school buildings

Instrucstions which food is bad for your teeth

Treats for Cavity 

...and the good stuff

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Caved In

After one year of boycotting the assembly by not taking their seats, the opposition finally struck a deal with the governing party. What a deal it was! After demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, no less, the reform of the National Election Committee (NEC), new elections, etc., and after holding many demonstrations, trying to empower the youth of the country, they now finally settled for bread crumbs, all things considered. Of course, the reform of the NEC is a significant step, especially after both parties agreed on the ninth neutral member, the founder of Licadho, Mrs. Kek with impeccable credentials.

 Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the CPP once again won the power play by using a grave mistake by some of the opposition members as a pretext to have them arrested for incitement, among other violations. One can understand, though not condone, that the demonstrators were tired of being beaten up by hired thugs and finally fought back, giving them a good licking, some even suffering serious injuries. At last, the government had the leverage to use legal means to force them into giving up their hopeless boycott. Now is that the result the supporters of Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha, et al, were demonstrating for – after those opposition leaders had tacitly emboldened them to resort to violence in January, which resulted in several deaths? Most certainly not, I venture to say.

Having seven leading CNRP members in jail, though, brought Sam Rainsy to his knees and Mr. Hun Sen could once again gloat in his adversary’s face. There is this one picture of both men shaking hands after they announced that deal. Hun Sen clearly enjoys the moment demonstrating this with a firm handshake, whereas Sam Rainsy’s facial expression, often inscrutable, seemed to show how he detested the moment of his defeat, underlining it with an obvious limp handshake.

 He is trying to save some of his face by now demanding that all the details of the deal be in writing and signed before they will take their seats and be sworn in. Understandably, they want a change of the Assembly rules, which stipulate that the president has veto power over introducing legislation, which certainly is a very unusual rule. Once it passed the committee stage proposed legislation is debated in parliament and then voted up or down.

 Nevertheless, Sam Rainsy is overestimating his bargaining position. Even if that nonsensical rule is abolished, any legislation can still be voted down by the current majority. Frankly, no one sees any chance of opposition legislation being passed in the next 4 years. Whatever he does that does not meet the PM’s approval will be destined for failure. But being in the National Assembly will give their fight more legitimacy than all those fruitless demonstrations, which after all haven’t changed a thing. So get on with it already.

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.