Saturday, December 25, 2010

Will Sihanoukville Ever Become a Real Resort Town?

Ochoeuteal Beach

There have been many enthusiastic reports about the more or less imminent development of Sihanoukville into a major tourist destination. This was to be the premier resort town of Cambodia. Of course, there isn’t any other town on the coast that would offer similar prerequisites. So it stands to reason that all efforts would be concentrated here. Not too long ago the city/provincial government even sent notice to all business owners on Otres beach to vacate their land as the beach is going to be developed. Never mind that some of the business owners had just gotten their license a few months before and were not told about those plans. In the end, most of the affected businesses just moved their shacks to another part of the beach. It pretty much looks the same as before.

Anyway, I had wanted to be part of that development at one time; 3-4 years ago to be exact. I was looking for about one hectare on Otres beach to build a 15-bungalow 3-star international resort. Everybody had land to sell, so not surprisingly, I found a suitable piece of land rather quickly. Of course, it came at a price, which I at the time thought was not too farfetched – about $100/m2. They are asking for more than double, even triple that money now. For beachfront land this is not too much either, I believe. After all, there is only so much beach available; once it has been taken, it is gone. My plans did not come to fruition, though, as I couldn’t find solvent investors for the project, which had a total volume of about $8.0 million. Many were interested, but when it came to showing the money, the communication abruptly ceased or I got an earful of excuses. When the financial crisis hit there was no chance I could find any investors so I forgot about the whole project. Nevertheless, I occasionally go back to check on what’s going on there now. I read there was a Greek casino operator that wanted to built a resort with casino (of course); some Chinese were supposedly coming in too. Well, to make a long story short, I have yet to see a resort on Otres beach going up, Greek or otherwise; so far not even an indication of one being initiated. That one hectare I wanted to buy is still sitting there vacant, in the meantime overgrown with weeds.

The city/provincial government promised an Otres Beach Park. Well, look at the picture below. This is what has materialized so far. This is not to say they won’t build it but it might go the same way as the Hun Sen Beach Park. They erected a corrugated iron wall, behind which some construction activity could be heard, and trucks drove in and out. Now the wall has come down again, and lo and behold, I did not see any difference to the way it was before. So I guess they have given up on their plans, or the money needed to be spent somewhere else. Before they even start contemplating a park like that for Otres Beach they should build proper access roads. The dirt road really isn’t going to cut it if they want more people to travel the distance to it. Those squatters along the road close to the beach won’t help either. They have been there for the last 7 or 8 years. Just imagine the public outcry if indeed the government were to move those people. They are not fishermen; they have no visible means of support; yes, they are poor but what are they doing there? I can sympathize with them, but I don’t understand it.

Proposed Otres Beach Park

Having been in the tourist/travel business for a long time, I am naturally interested in those developments. In previous posts, I wrote about what was needed to attract foreign (Western) tourists. (Western, because those tend to spend quite a bit of money.) First and foremost is adequate hotel accommodation, that is, in the 3 to 5 star category. So far there is only the Sokha Beach Hotel and the Independence Hotel. The Sokha Beach added some nice bungalows on stilts in water in quasi-Khmer style with thatched roofs.
Sokha Beach Hotel Bungalows

On Ocheouteal, I saw a new Diamond Hotel about to open their doors. But this looks just like another Khmer-hotel that will probably soon go to seeds because they usually don’t do anything in terms of upkeep. I remember the Jasmine Hotel when it first opened in 2003. I thought it was quite nice, although lacking a decent restaurant for breakfast. If you go to stay there now, it is a run-down place and surely not worth more than the $20 they charge for an air-conditioned room. Other than that, there is nothing worth mentioning as far as attractive accommodations go. The bottom line is that Sihanoukville is a far cry from a resort town. It’s still a backpackers and single male travelers destination as is evidenced by the many single man, mostly on the wrong of side of 50, roaming the streets on mopeds or tuk-tuks with a usually much younger female Khmer companion, although during season the picture changes slightly.

Koh Puous is still moving along at a snail’s pace. The bridge is due for completion in 2011. Then the island development is going to begin. In other words, it will be some time before we see any tourists there.

Koh Puous Bridge

Hawaii Beach has practically disappeared with the Emario Shonan Resort being built there. Although the beach is accessible to the public, as with all beaches the 15 m, sometimes 30 or 50 m of waterfront, remain state property, I wonder how many Khmer will actually go there once the development is finished. According to their website the company is Khmer-owned and the architecture is good evidence of that. ( I haven’t found out how much the flat-houses, or the bungalows, or the marina houses will cost. But the whole thing looks a little like overkill to me. They are building a hotel with conference center, a casino, restaurants, a shopping mall, and an apartment house. They all bank on foreigners and wealthy Khmer buying into this. Well, who doesn’t want to have their own beachfront property? Bearing that in mind, on second thought, it might well succeed too, with the foreigners buying the condos, and the Khmer the ‘flat houses’ (but what about the shopping center?). Once luscious landscaping will make it look attractively tropical, I am sure it will add to Sihanoukville’s appeal both here and abroad.

Emario Resort

Now Pearl City on the other hand is one development where I am wondering what it is supposed to accomplish for the overall development – more flat houses and more shopping centers. The developer is Thai Boon Roong, one of the seven groups in Cambodia that virtually control most of the country, both in real estate and business. So they have enough money to pour into something that is planned well into the future. It is too big too soon for Snooky at this stage in its development, that’s for sure. It’s huge, currently ugly (well, it is a construction site), and planned well past the pocketbooks of the majority of Khmer. They make exactly the same mistakes as all the flat house developers in Phnom Penh – too much and too expensive for today’s Khmer real estate market. I wonder whether these people have ever heard of market research, demographics, income distribution, and such. There is also a resort that recently partially opened nearby – the Khmer Broneth Resort. Another big miscalculation Khmer hotel developers make is that they think a nice hotel with a swimming pool is a resort. That property is one of them. Well, how about some activities and entertainment รก la Club Med? Now that’s what I call a resort!

Pearl City

However, I know a piece of land that would be a gem if someone like the people who designed the Sokha Beach Hotel properly developed it. It is a gem of sorts already; it currently houses the Treasure Island restaurant with excellent seafood. The location is ideal. It is secluded enough (notwithstanding the onramp for the Koh Puous bridge nearby at the beginning of the access road), and it practically has its private beach. Although the Koh Puous bridge is going up within sight of the beach, I don’t think that will matter much once the bridge is completed. As far as I know the property is leased to a Hong Kong Chinese for 50 years. Either he doesn’t have the money to develop it, or he doesn’t know how, or he is simply not interested. It is a real shame, though. This property would be just the site for a 20-bungalow resort like the one I had planned. For the time being, though, try out their fresh seafood; you won’t be disappointed. It’s a beautiful, romantic setting if you eat there at night in one of the gazebos along the beach. The fishing boat that ran aground there adds to the overall ambience.

Treasure Island Restaurant Beach

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Through the Roof?

For those of you interested in the rubber industry, and there are quite a few judging from the visits I get on those posts, it may not have escaped your attention that the price for crepe rubber has risen to heretofore unseen heights. Here is the relevant table for Cambodia’s main export CSK5L - kg prices in US cents:

Source Malaysian Rubber Exchange

Yesterday the price hit $4,640/mt (or 464 cents per kg). Although it had touched that point once before but came back down to between $4,400 and $4,550/mt. Compared to a low price of around $1,500 to $1,600/mt in March 2009, this is a tripling of prices in 20 months.

By any standard this would be considered unhealthy. Personally, I am a little worried, too, as my experience has taught me that those rapid price increases tend to end up in a crash. This is, of course, all driven by the Chinese economy which hums along at an 8% to 9% growth rate. Economists see a certain danger looming up ahead for the Chinese economy as their growth is also based on an exploding real estate market, and readily available loans from banks, which, however, helped China avoid (just as India did) the severe consequences of the world-wide recession. A real estate bubble and easy money were the same ingredients that led to the crash of the U. S. economy, though; the one big difference appears to be that Chinese banks do not repackage their loans in what later became known as toxic derivatives. China is expected to tighten monetary policy by raising interest rates next year. This should cool down the economy somewhat.

The connection to the rubber growing industry is to a large extent China’s auto manufacturing industry. Today China has the largest single auto market in the world; it surpassed the U. S. in 2009. Coupled with an underproduction of crepe rubber this has led to this explosion of rubber prices. Besides, oil prices also drive other commodities, especially rubber – high oil prices, high rubber prices. Why? High oil prices make synthetic rubber more expensive so the markets turn to natural rubber.

Hopefully, China’s economy will indeed cool down next year, which will then also lead to a stabilization of prices, which is certainly needed in the rubber industry. It’s nice to make some extra money now, and we should enjoy it while it lasts; but we should be wary of a rude awakening. Should it come we can only hope that we won’t fall out of bed in the middle of a nice dream. But then, there are also sage people who say the Chinese economy is going to be growing for the next ten years.  In that sense, investing in a rubber plantation is not a bad idea. The Chinese do it - killing two birds with one stone - securing their supply and earning decent money on their investment.
      18-month old plantation

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Does the Country Need This?

Christmas is around the corner in the Western world. It finally caught up with Cambodia too. It was here before but this year it really made a big splash, so to speak, what with all the Christmas carols blaring from the sound systems of the shopping malls and supermarkets, like Lucky and Bayon, and with (artificial) Christmas trees in many restaurants; even the ones where you wouldn’t expect it, like my favorite Chinese-Khmer breakfast place, the Mekong. Thankfully, I believe most Cambodians ignore all that hustle and bustle that is normally associated with the pre-Christmas season, e. g. buying presents (after all who has the money), the office parties, etc.

Now since this is a Christian holiday, that is, before it declined into a purely commercial event, this brings me to the question why there are so many Christian organizations in Cambodia. They really seem to proliferate. It appears as if it’s mostly American and Australian churches, or denominations, that abound. Of course, Americans have always been great missionaries, and they are found all over the world. Wasn’t it American missionaries that annexed Hawaii? But you also have your German Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, e. g. the Don Bosco padres, etc.

I know I am not the only one who is asking himself the question whether or not all these Christian organizations are here for the help they extend to the poor and needy, or are they here for their souls? Now, why would a family of six from Oklahoma pack up and go to live in Cambodia? Aren’t there any souls to be saved in their dusty home state? Wouldn’t they have a much more comfortable life back home? Why leave all that for some backwater, ‘uncivilized’ country like Cambodia?

Yeah, I know, they all do good work here, and traditionally churches have always been on the forefront of humanitarian aid. But obviously, their underlying purpose is to proselytize and convert people to the Christian belief, whether it’s Protestant or Catholic, with the numerous protestant denominations outweighing the Catholics 99 to 1, I would guess. One of their insidious ways of getting Cambodian converts is by schooling them. One primary example appears to be the Hope schools, incl. Logos. They teach a normal American curriculum but each day has one period of Christian lessons, like Bible study. They also teach the theory of Intelligent Design (including that ridiculous belief that the earth is about 5,000 years old), alas alongside the Darwinian Theory. Those schools are not for free, but they do offer scholarships to Cambodian children. Some Christian schools, though, offer a free elementary education; that age period when children are most impressionable and easily indoctrinated.

I wonder who funds all these NGOs. I know people in the West donate tons of money for good causes, and in the U. S. whole churches exist on their members’ donations. So is this where all the money comes from? And it’s not that these missionaries live an ascetic life. No, they drive nice cars, mostly SUVs, rent villas, and employ maids. I guess it must be worth it to leave all that materialism behind and help people here.

In the plus-column, though, we can note that they do offer a quality education, if you disregard their religious lessons, they do help with community projects, they do provide much-needed health care in some rural areas. But could they just do it without wanting to convert people, or to show them the ways of the Christian God and their Savior Jesus?

After all, the Cambodians have an older, perfectly acceptable, and livable religion in Buddhism, or philosophy as some would say, in terms of how to live a good life. Some would say it is a better religion as it has not brought forth so much evil that was committed in the name of Christianity.

I mean, Christian ethics as expressed in their 10 commandments, which actually is a Judaic postulate, and the teachings of their prophet Jesus weren’t new ideas. The same principles were espoused long before Jesus came along. Plato and Socrates come to mind. Buddha laid down more or less the same principles. That all happened well before Jesus’ time.

Christianity is just a sect that sprang from Judaism, just as Islam did. Religion has a way of splitting up into Churches. It’s only too human. When people differ in their beliefs, they just start their own church. And there is no place like the U. S. where anybody can start their own church, mega-churches even, that oftentimes rake in millions of dollars. Similarly, anybody can come to Cambodia in the name of Christianity, start an NGO, collect money, and do some good work, right? Don’t get me wrong. I am not accusing any organization of coming here for the money. But it would be possible, now wouldn’t it?

And what are these Mormons doing here? At the time I was still flying back and forth between the U. S. and Cambodia, there was hardly any time when I did not see a group of Mormons on the plane that usually dispersed in Taiwan taking their flights to the different Asian destinations. Each Mormon must spend 2 years as a missionary. This is a dictum of their church. So you have them here in Cambodia, of all places, bicycling along in their white shirts, black pants, always wearing a helmet. Clean-cut, nice guys, no doubt. And you have to give it to them. They all speak Khmer. So they come well-prepared, and they surely have the most prominent ‘Christian’ building in Cambodia. But, as far as I know, they don’t do squat in terms of doing some good deeds. They just spend their time trying to convert people. Now, I would think they had better pack their magic underwear and head back to where they came from. Cambodians need them as much as a dose of VD. (Note to those who don’t know: Mormons wear special undergarments, or garments, that are supposed to protect them from evil, and also remind them of the promise they made to God. There are some other interpretations and a lot of ridicule about those magic underpants. If interested Google it.)

I mean, to each their own. Sure, let them come here and do good; and the Cambodian government lets them. Just don’t be so ostentatious about it. Cambodians regrettably copy enough of that Western, mostly Americanized, life-style as it is. They sure don’t need that Christian belief too. I am sure secular organizations could do just as good, if not better, a job. I am thinking of Oxfam, or the GTZ (German technical NGO). But as to the Mormons: you are not needed here, nor anywhere for that matter.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Blame Game

As was expected many people and organizations feel called upon to seek out those bearing supposedly direct responsibility for the disaster on the Koh Pich bridge this past Monday.

A certain Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza of the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hong Kong put out a press release, which even found its way into the New York Times. She accused the authorities of a ‘failure to plan for and control the crowd then limit the damage from the stampede’. She went on to say that the police

- Did not enforce traffic directions (on the bridge),
- Military and police attempts to control the crowd may have exacerbated fear and confusion and caused further fatalities.
- Eyewitness reports state that the military used water cannons on the crowd after the stampede began, electrocuting, and killing some of those trapped on the bridge when the water hit exposed electric wiring.
- The government is directly responsible for the stampede deaths; Phnom Penh was unprepared for any form of large-scale disaster.
- Responses by police and military were lacking and may even have contributed to the stampede
- Hospitals were overwhelmed,
- The capital had only 60 coffins available for victims,

In a previous post on the Huffington Post she had stated that ’ an estimated two-thirds of those who died were women, less able to fight their way from the crowds, indicating the extreme vulnerability of Cambodian women to disaster.’

To her everything is ‘clear’. While the authorities were clearly overwhelmed and certainly have no experience in this kind of disaster, to put the blame squarely on them is somewhat of a stretch. As in any such mass panic, it was a combination of factors that contributed to the tragedy (see my previous post).

If Ms. Poza had lived in Cambodia for a while she would know how undisciplined most Cambodians are in traffic. Traffic is practically a daily chaos in Phnom Penh. The police are helpless in the face of the sheer numbers of motorcycle riders that go just as they please regardless of traffic lights, signs, even police. Add to that a certain apathy, it is no wonder they were equally helpless when people just used both bridges any way they wanted. The new bridge was closer so most of them simply preferred that one.

I am sure the authorities had no contingency plans for stampedes. Even if they did, those plans are no guarantee that this disaster could have been prevented as examples in other countries demonstrate; each mass panic is different. Crowd control is a nice word but again, if you look at other countries, authorities mostly fail at it miserably using water cannons, tear gas, etc., which only aggravate the situation, sometimes even leading to riots in the aftermath of a panic.

How the government is directly responsible would need a bit more substantiation than mere hearsay and accounts from possibly unreliable sources. Eyewitnesses were still in shock. People in shock aren’t the best witnesses immediately after the event. A case in point is the rumor of electrocution, which this dear lady takes at face value and even repeats twice - in her post and a news release. It turns out that this did not happen. Nobody was killed by electrocution according to doctors.

The response by police and military were most likely not on a level with Western standards, but one has to bear in mind that this was a first for Cambodia. This in itself does not absolve the authorities from all responsibility, but a more thorough evaluation than Ms. Poza’s is certainly desirable.

I would be interested to learn which city in the world stocks enough coffins for such an incident. What I see and read is that elsewhere, but not everywhere, body bags are used. And it is no surprise that hospitals were overwhelmed. This is a third-world country with all the deficiencies this term denotes: lack of proper health care, lack of education, lack of training in emergencies, and so on, and so forth. Ms. Poza, I only hope such a tragedy doesn’t strike Hong Kong. The scope of incompetence you so stridently condemn in Cambodia would most likely be equally present.

And finally, how Cambodian women are more vulnerable in such disasters than other women eludes probably not only me. That statement together with your other allegations, assumptions, and outright falsehoods clearly show how unbalanced your view of events is, your bias, and a certain extent of ignorance. If all ‘reports’ by the Asian Human Rights Commission are prepared like this I can understand the government’s animosity towards your and similar organizations.

P. S. The AHRC website lists Ms. Poza as an intern whereas she labels herself as a political consultant and writer for the AHRC.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Koh Pich Disaster – Preventable?

It goes without saying that everybody is shocked by this event and feels with the families and friends of those who lost their lives on that fateful night.

The headline might suggest that I am going to engage in a round of finger pointing or seeking out responsible parties - I am not; it wouldn’t be my place anyway. Of course, it would be very easy to put the blame on someone in order to divert from the real issue underlying such a stampede. Once you have a culprit the case is closed for most people. It is just like in a murder trial. The killer gets a life sentence or even the death penalty; that is supposed to bring closure (what a nice word) to the victim’s family. But does it? I don’t think the families of the victims in this case would feel less pain if they knew why all this happened. Their son or daughter, or niece, or nephew, is gone and won’t return.

The answer to the question is obviously not so easy. Although I am not an expert, I dug into the subject matter and was shocked at how many of those stampedes actually happen every year. Just check out, which incidentally had added Koh Pich just one day later. We are swamped by news stories every day so much that we don’t seem to notice any more how many people die in such a horrible way. Sure enough, this story had disappeared from international headlines just one day later, to be replaced by a missile attack in the Koreas. How are we supposed to keep up with all this news stream?

This stampede appears to be very similar to the one that happened in Germany this past summer at an event called ‘Love Parade’, a huge rave concert. The number of fatalities was thankfully ‘only’ 21. Instead of too narrow a bridge as the access/exit route to a site there it was tunnel. In both cases these two entry/exit points became the proverbial bottleneck, which when people move in panic becomes like moving walls in a horror movie. People are pressed against each other, which makes them move even faster in order to get away from all that pressure.

Many studies have been done on the subject and there is a very logical and scientific explanation of people’s behavior and why it comes to stampedes. I found one done by the Technical College for Sociology in Zurich. The gist of it is as follows.

There is something called average density, meaning the number of people on a certain area at a given time, which generally is considered to be four per square meter. Once the number reaches six a critical point has been reached, at which people start to feel uncomfortable and try to avoid this by moving away. If there is enough room to move to, of course, there is no imminent danger. Under normal circumstances, that critical density is of no direct consequence as the people either move to or from an event in a more or less orderly fashion unless there is something that makes people want to move faster than is possible due to local density.

By news accounts the Koh Pich root cause that provoked the panic was a slight swaying of the suspension bridge due to the masses moving on it, which led some people to believe that it was about to collapse. This thought spread through the masses like wildfire. People reportedly started moving in both directions increasing the local density to over eight people. At the critical point of six people per square meter the speed of movement is decreased threefold, in other words, they almost come to a complete stop. Meanwhile more people press on, trying to get away from the purported danger point.

Now one has to realize that such a density can result in forces to over 445 kg being exerted in one direction. In this enormous pressure, people have trouble breathing that adds to the panic and they futilely try to move even more quickly, resulting in possible thrashing about. Eventually and consequently, many of them lose consciousness and die by asphyxiation (compressive asphyxiation as per Wikipedia). They are literally crushed to death. They then fall to the ground and are trampled on by the masses above them.

Now are those stampedes preventable? At first glance one tends to say ‘yes’. This is actually the point where the local authorities with their responsibility for public safety come in. Usually, such an event needs some kind of official permission to take place. In Koh Pich the Bayon concert and all the other attractions most certainly did have all their permits in place. The authorities estimated that about 2 million people converged on Phnom Penh for the water festival, the biggest event every year. Some previous estimates were as high as 4 million. The newly open Koh Pich was an attractive addition to the venue and promised to be a nice conclusion to the festival. I wasn’t there so I don‘t know whether the authorities posted police at the entrance to the bridge on each end to monitor the stream of people. I am sure there were at least a few as police was present in force throughout the city during the festival.

Now did the police have reason to expect or suspect that a panic might break out on the bridge in view of the masses moving over the bridge? Any clear-headed person must answer this with a ‘no’. This is just like at the end of a football/soccer game or a rock concert with 80,000 people in attendance. They may have many more exits available to leave the stadium but if people start pushing and shoving even that number of exits is not enough. It will only take a tiny spark to set off a panic and consequently a stampede. Similarly, the assumed spark that set off the stampede on that bridge could under no circumstances be expected. As a former resident of Florida, I know what it is like to be sitting on one of the many suspension bridges in your car waiting for the oncoming traffic to pass by due to a lane closure ahead. Believe me, those things do sway and shake, especially if a big truck rushes by. People just put their trust in the engineers that constructed the bridge, firm in their knowledge that those did a good job. Of course, the people here don’t know anything about that. For them the swaying was an ominous sign, which then resulted in that horrible disaster.

Finally, it appears that short of shutting those sites off for mass events there is no sure method of preventing a stampede if certain conditions prevail. Such catastrophies at one time or another strike even countries that have much more experience in crowd control than Cambodia. Perhaps one idea for the future would be to install cameras to monitor the density on the bridge, or any other public venue for mass gatherings for that matter, and once that critical density of five or six people per square meter has been reached slow down or temporarily stop the onflow or inflow of people onto the bridge or any other site for mass gatherings.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

One Tiny Step at a Time

It’s been there a while but I only now get to show it. Ocheuteal Beach in Sihanoukville, or Kompong Som as the locals still call it, has undergone a transformation for the better. It has been going on for a while and initially I thought this was only the individual bar and restaurant owners improving their own site but this is a concerted effort by the city of SHV. They built a ‘boardwalk’, which here is made of tiles. The restaurants are not just shacks, although there are still a few around; the beach lounges and umbrellas are usable, and the sand is clean, at least most of the time. It’s far from perfect but it’s a start.

Let’s face it the beach was nothing much to look at in the past. It was a beautiful stretch of oceanside showing nothing but neglect from the beach lounges to the umbrellas and the tables. One always read about those high-flying plans the federal and the state governments espoused of how to attract major tourist operators and airlines to send in thousands of tourists every year. All those plans foundered due to the lack of hotel capacity and, of course, the beach itself. As long as it stayed that way, they would only continue to get parsimonious backpackers.

First, the beach is rather small in order to accommodate the throngs of tourists the government and the local entrepreneurs would like to see there. Second, Western tourists, and those are the ones they should focus on, are rather spoiled when it comes to beaches; they are beach connoisseurs so to speak, probably having taken in the sun in places from Mombasa, Kenya, to Mauritius, or neighboring Thailand. Cambodia could not compete with any of those. On the one hand, this was one of the attractions of this country, but on the other hand, in order to lure those hard-currency carrying foreigners the beaches needed to undergo a major change. It is those Western package tourists who spend quite a bit of their money pouring it into the local economy.

I recently read an article sort of complaining that most of the money of the tourist sector goes back to foreign companies, starting with the airline, the foreign-owned hotels, and many times foreign-owned incoming operators. The frugal backpackers and individual tourists do spend money locally but they stay at cheap hotels, eat cheap food, and travel like locals on the inter-city buses. So altogether, they probably try to get by on $25 a day including hotel. For the tourism sector to be a major contributor the economy tourists would need to spend more time in the country and consequently more money that stays in the country. Currently the majority of tourists comes from Vietnam who stays 3 days on average. They are not exactly known for splurging. Koreans and Japanese come in groups and are herded through Angkor Wat, take a day to see Phnom Penh, and are off again. Their tours are usually 5 days. Mind you, they don’t like to eat at Khmer places – no, they want to eat their own food. So, it is Westerners.
There are a few hotel projects under way in SHV. I don’t know whether they will make a difference. We read about many promising multi-million dollar projects; so far, nothing has materialized. What the city and its beaches need are a few major investors who put up a string of 3 – 4 star resort hotels totaling about 2,500 beds. Since this won’t happen overnight, the logistics of that are manageable in terms of flight transfers from Phnom Penh or Seam Reap unless the plans for that airport at SHV become reality, which for now has again been put off. Once that number of ‘quality’ beds have been built there is no doubt that there will be at least one Western airline introducing non-stop flights from Europe to SHV. Cambodia, after all, makes for an ideal tourist destination – a typical package would comprise a total of 10 days at the beach, 3 days in Seam Reap, 2 days in Phnom Penh. Europeans normally have 4 – 6 weeks paid vacation time. Given the inhospitable climate there, they travel two, sometimes three, times a year, one of which is often a long-haul destination. Cambodia could be the next destination in their travel plans, but only if the infrastructure is there. And so far, unfortunately, it is not. But cleaning up their act, in the truest sense of the word, is a tiny first step.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Any Results?

Usually a visit by a foreign government official to Cambodia results in some kind of promise, political agreements, or even contracts which would help the country in some way or other, but Hillary Clinton’s visit seemed to have been more of a good-will tour because no tangible results came out of her two-day visit to Cambodia.

First of all, she started out in Siem Reap, where she visited the shelter for trafficked women. The she took of tour of Angkor Wat; of course, she can’t miss that. But is this the way to start a state visit?

The most interesting pronouncement was her idea to use Cambodia’s debt to the U. S. to channel it into education and the environment or nature. The way understood I it, her idea was that Cambodia repays at least some of the money, which the U. S. then earmarks for those purposes. The balance might then be used directly within Cambodia with a firm commitment to those purposes. This is at least a novel idea and quite different from that expressed by her Assistant Deputy Under Secretary (that is a mouthful, isn’t it?) who testified before a Congressional Committee that it needs to be repaid - period. It actually is quite a good concept that could be used by other countries as well when it comes to repaying those immense loans Cambodia has piled up over the years. But a Secretary of State doesn’t have the authority to make such a concession point-blank. It needs to be reviewed by however many committees and subcommittees. So in order to prepare for this she will send over a team of experts to hammer out details with the Cambodian government that will stand up in those committees and ultimately in the U. S. Congress. Having followed American politics for many, many years I am doubtful, though, that this idea will meet with much enthusiasm. American politicians are good when it comes to talking about issues that don’t affect the budget, but once money is involved, their thinking tends to change quite rapidly. With the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives and only 53 seats in the Senate Obama and Hillary Clinton are practically hamstrung. They won’t get one law passed without major concessions, if any at all.

As a consequence, this issue will remain on the backburner. The Cambodian government could just relax and wait what happens if it were not for the interest that keeps accruing to the original debt, which was something like $330 million and has now risen to over $440 million. Bottom line: nothing will happen the next two years.

Her remarks on the UN Human Rights office, and human rights in general, were typical diplomatese and in my mind distinctive only in that they were softer than what all human rights organizations had anticipated and even encouraged her to state. Her words on the opposition parties were equally broad and general. According to the press, she stated she would follow the situation ‘in detail’. Now what does that mean? In no way could this be interpreted as her ‘helping Sam Rainsy return to Cambodia for the next election’. The opposition was clearly overshooting with that statement. Wishful thinking? Notably absent was Mu Sochua playing for a central public role in the encounter with Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t even mentioned in particular in the statement released by the opposition. Did she really miss that chance to buddy up to her ‘close friend’ Hillary?

Overall, the whole visit was remarkable in that it was rather unremarkable in the context of Cambodian politics. Maybe she really did want to get away from the for the Democrats catastrophic mid-term elections in the U. S. And sure enough, the next day a high-ranking Chinese official came to town who got a lot more play in the press. Well for one, he stayed 4 days instead of the 2-day whirlwind tour of Hillary Clinton. And besides, he brought with him a $1.2 billion package, and the Chinese government forgave $4.2 million in debt that had become due for repayment. Who’s to argue with this? All this happened on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s admonition that Cambodia should seek partners everywhere in Asia (and beyond), not just China. Make no mistake, Vietnam might be on the opposition’s mind, but the real dominating force here is China these days. With $62 million or so p. a. in U. S. aid for Cambodia, there is just not enough leverage for the U. S. to make their case; additionally, their influence as a great power is waning. This was underscored by the fact that Forbes magazine chose Hu Jintao, the Chinese President, as the most powerful man on earth. The Americans sure got enough problems at home right now – and they will last well into the next decade - to bother with backwater countries like Cambodia.

Another sign, though on a smaller scale: I just learned the other day that one large private Cambodian rubber manufacturer sold out to a Chinese company. China is the next great power and will dominate the world. This is the reality, people.

The Canadia Tower

I think that building was finally really inaugurated on Friday, Nov. 05. Although it has been open and functioning for a while now (with still a lot of office space available), one thing has been missing that normally many tall buildings in other metropolises of the world feature: a rooftop restaurant.

A building like this is ideal for this, and I am really amazed why nobody has had the idea to open one unless, of course, the rent is forbiddingly high and makes the whole thing unworkable. After all, who can afford to go to expensive restaurants on a regular basis? The Malis restaurant is obviously the exception, but with its world-class cuisine, it found its niche in Phnom Penh’s restaurant scene.

But this past Friday, one very creative French entrepreneur and his equally creative Korean wife at least opened up the rooftop terrace for a one-night party. They own the Elsewhere restaurant, a popular hang-out for expats and NGOs employees and feature the First Friday of the Month evening at their restaurants, which they now held at the rooftop terrace.

Initially, it looked kind of desolate with only a few tables and chairs available, but they had hired a pretty good jazz combo, the sound system was terrific and after the wind had died down it became what you would expect from a tropical night party. They served up food prepared or organized by the FTE NGO, the proceeds of which went to that NGO.

After 8 o’clock, the place filled up and by 9 o’clock, it was packed. At the time we were leaving at around 10:30 (I had drunk my beers a little too quickly) there were still people streaming in. As was expected the crowd was more on the younger side with a lot of what looked like girls-night-out. My guess is there were about 1,000 people milling around, mostly Caucasian though. I was wondering whether these were really all people living and working here or whether a lot of tourists found out about the party from their hotels. Whatever the case it was quite enjoyable and the view is just great, something one only has when arriving by plane at night. Anyway, I had my doubts about the whole thing when I first entered but it certainly turned out a smashing success. I am sure this venue will prove successful for all kinds of get-togethers with a social character.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Building a House in Cambodia

I read this article in the New York Times a few days ago.

This house looks ugly as hell; only French people can build a thing like that (and I am not a Francophobe, quite the contrary). I know of a small hotel in Phnom Penh, the owner of which transformed a rented house into that nice boutique hotel – the Blue Lime. It turned out to be a success commercially, but the rooms are ugly as hell as well. He used only concrete and steel wire as furniture. On his website he calls it minimalist. But then I must be pretty old-fashioned as the guests like it. There is even one hotel that copied it to the T. (The ‘252’)

The house in Siem Reap in the picture looks like it also has just bare concrete walls; normally a nice coat of paint makes a house look more attractive, doesn’t it? Well, not to some French people, it seems. Perhaps that’s the new style in Southern France? I don’t know. I haven’t been there in ages. Anyway, what surprised me most was the price tag for that house. According to the NYT they paid approximately $300,000 for 3,000 square feet – it is not clear whether this includes the swimming pool - it looks more like a foot bath - and the yard. 3,000 square feet equals about 279 m2, in other words, they paid about $1,080 per m2. I am inclined to think that includes the yard as well. The house doesn’t like it is more than 4 m wide (standard Cambodian width) and 10 m long.

Cambodian builders have perfected the art of building a house in a jiffy. I see all these row houses spring up all over the city at an incredible speed. Since I just recently built a house myself and was involved in a smaller development I know a little bit about building houses.

Basic building materials like cement ($80/mt) and bricks ($400 for 10,000 pcs.) have come down from previous heights, but it may come as no surprise that construction prices haven’t. Usually, prices are quoted by m2, including everything from tiles to windows, doors, bathroom installations. Depending on the quality of the materials except bricks and cement and workmanship, of course, these prices can vary quite a bit.

A regular row house, ground floor only, costs about $200 to $220/m2, including that half-floor; the first floor will be at the same price, the second floor (half of which is usually a terrace) is half that price. So normally a row house is 4 m x 12 m, sometimes 4 x 14 m, or 48 m2 to 64 m2 of floor area (Cambodian lots are typically 4 x 20m – 4 m in front must be kept free as sidewalk, and 1 m in the rear needs to separate it from the adjoining wall there.) If you do the math this will come out as round about $10,000 to $12,000 for a ground floor only, with first floor $22,000 to $25,000. No kitchen cabinets or anything else besides the toilets and the wall shower are included. If you want things a little bit more complete or modern, like a real shower, you will have to figure in another $5,000 minimum. The price for the land is not included, of course.

If you fancy something more extraordinary there is no limit to what you might need to pony up. Those huge villas we see all over the place in Cambodia are around the $500 - $800 mark. Some of them are outright palatial; Khmer people have a tendency toward bigness, if they have the money for it. Modesty or understatement seem to be unknown terms for them.

But coming back to that French house in Siem Reap that price seems to be a bit high, even considering that the owner changed a few things while it was being built. The way it looks I would have guessed it at about $250/m2. To me it looks like half-finished, but then that’s me. Just look at the teal colored drain pipes sticking out from the first floor wrap-around balcony.

The rather plain house I built cost me $237/m2, not including air conditioning, shower stalls, special bathtub, special windows, window screens, the garage, the driveway tiles and around the house, the high ‘Tiki hut’, a water filtration system (well water), the connection to the power grid (about 1 km away), etc. Considering that the house is located in the countryside we got a pretty good deal. Prices in the provinces are usually higher as all the materials need to be hauled from Phnom Penh.

Of course, when you buy land (my wife is Khmer), you need to build a wall around it so as to officially stake your claim to the land and so that everybody can see there is an owner and this land is not for squatting. That wall plus the barbed wire, the gate, etc. are all extra, not to mention the yard or garden as we would rather call it, which is not nearly finished. We will do that bit by bit. The grass for about 1,000 m2 was about the same amount in dollars, with two thirds going towards the transport from the sod place to our house. I kept part of the land free for possible later construction of a boarding house for fishing tourists. Something I am planning to do on the side.

Altogether we spent about half the money that a ‘normal’ 2,000 sq.ft. house would cost in Florida, with the major difference being that the land is three times as large, and that all interior walls are brick. The ceilings are 3.50 m high, although not vaulted as is the normal style in Florida these days. The floorplan is such that the front and back door are in a direct line so that the wind can blow right through the house; additionally, we build a ventilation shaft so there is an air flow from the great room through the roof. We hardly ever need the a/c during the day; we just turn it on for about one hour before we go to bed.

A final word about workmanship; the quality of the brickwork is, as far as I can judge, equal to Western standards. The plastering and more delicate work in corners, etc., could do with some improvement. The ventilation shaft gave them a lot of problems, because it was a first for them. The roof frame is galvanized steel; the concrete foundation is solidly built 50 cm into the ground. The woodwork, like built-in under sink cabinets, or the slatted door to the walk-in closet are pretty poor as is all the sanitation work. The bathroom fixtures are all first quality (Karat), but the installation was definitely lacking. When we moved in I had redo all the hose connections as they were leaking. Also, what they obviously don’t know how to do is build floor-drains so that no odor wafts back from the pipes leading into the septic tanks. I closed them all as we have no need for floor drains since we have shower stalls, which incidentally were also leaking and needed to be re-sealed. Of course, the builder gave a 5-year warranty and all the repair work was done under warranty. The whole house was built in just 5 months. You can’t beat that for speed. Overall I am pretty happy with the work, and the builder did a terrific job. Seeing him for the first time you are not inclined to put your trust in him. But he came with good references and actually lived up to them too. It is located in a somewhat remote area, but that’s the way I like it.

Here is a look at it:

In comparison here is a look at the house I own in Florida, which as everybody can see is up for sale.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Big Events

It seems as if Cambodia is trying with all its might to obtain a higher international standing judging by the parade of foreign dignitaries that recently arrived, are here, or will be arriving soon. Of course, there are the usual inter-ministerial meetings between Vietnam and Cambodia, the frequent visits by Chinese officials, but this week the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was here and on Sunday, Hillary Clinton will arrive for a two-day visit.

In the Prime Minister’s typical fashion, he ‘suggested’ that the U. N. Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia be removed from his post since he is just echoing the opposition parties’ complaints and acts as their mouthpiece. I guess it is well known that Hun Sen doesn’t take well to criticism of Cambodia’s human rights record, or of his policies in general, for that matter. The PPP reports that he even went so far as to indicate he would close this office. I haven’t read anything about Ban Ki-Moon’s response but it sure would have been interesting to be present for the actual reply.

Unfortunately, it indeed appears as if those rapporteurs actually do repeat the complaints of the various opposition and civic groups, though it shouldn’t come as a surprise as all those independent observers need to gain their knowledge from sources both within and outside the government, that is, from exactly those opposition and civic groups. The same applies to Human Rights Watch and other NGOs. In my view, the observations by NGOs and civic groups are almost or just as unbalanced as the government’s views. The only ones that seem to be somewhat more objective are the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and Licadho. But be that as it may, no one with a pre-cast Western mindset will have any luck in that position in Cambodia for the foreseeable future.

Hillary Clinton is one of the most prominent fighters for women’s rights but in her position as Secretary of State, she must represent the policies of an administration that may not always be identical to her views. Expediency and national interests shape policies, not ideals – and the world is far from being an ideal place. I am just wondering what the U. S.’s interest in Cambodia is. They hold joint military exercises, much to the chagrin of Mu Sochua and the opposition; it lauds Cambodia for its efforts in the fight against terrorism, in general is rather friendly towards Cambodia despite Cambodia’s poor human rights record as presented by the various international organizations. Vietnam with an equally poor record is a frequent destination for all sorts of U. S. officials; in fact, this will be Hillary Clinton’s second visit in the last three months. So one can clearly see that American politics is determined by economic interests first and foremost, and to a lesser extent by trying to counter Chinese influence in the region.

The thorniest issue will probably be Cambodia’s debt incurred during the Lon Nol years. That bozo, what else could you call such a man, of assistant deputy under secretary Yun had the nerve to testify before a Congressional committee and said that the U. S. does not have a policy to forgive debts. Of course, it did have a policy of secretly and illegally bombing this country causing thousands of innocents to die or to be displaced, not to mention the material and environmental damages the country suffered. ‘It would set a bad example to other nations.’ What was this man thinking when he prepared this unconscionable statement?
By any definition, these were war crimes and crimes against humanity as well. But who dares file a lawsuit against the U. S.? Of course, it would take a lot of guts, not to mention money, to pursue this. I am sure federal courts, the proper venue for such a complaint, would take it up. Mind you, the U. S., that bastion of the rule of law, does not recognize the International Court of Justice in The Hague. But as all those self-proclaimed fighters for justice point out, justice in Cambodia is served with two measures, one for the rich and powerful, and one for the poor. To me, this equally applies to the U. S. and small Cambodia as well.

Hillary Clinton’s visit should be a great opportunity for Mu Suchua. I really wonder how Mu Sochua will come off in her meeting with Hillary Clinton and how she will use it to her advantage and enhance her stature as the main opposition figure. The way things go these days it doesn’t seem even remotely likely that Sam Rainsy will ever return to Cambodia to lead the opposition in the next elections. Calling for Hun Sen’s arrest as a perpetrator of crimes against humanity and filing lawsuits against him in the U. S. and possibly other countries will make it very hard for Hun Sen to cast aside his personal animosity towards Sam Rainsy and allow him back in. (Not that those lawsuits will have any prospect of ever being actually tried. Hun Sen is a sitting Prime Minister of a diplomatically recognized country and enjoys diplomatic immunity, not to mention whether there is real evidence to file those charges in the first place. Sam Rainsy hasn’t shown a lucky hand in filing foreign lawsuits in the past. Attorneys will file any lawsuit as long as they get paid.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Khmer Intelligence

Khmer Intelligence operates as if it were a news service disseminating its reports by email. I get my copy from How I got on their mailing list, I do not know. They are, of course, anti-government and staunchly pro-SRP. I assume they are based in France, although they report in English.

A lot of times their reports serve only one purpose, it seems – to destabilize the government in order to get rid of Hun Sen who is seen as the primary source of all evil in Cambodia.

On October 07, 2010, this rather obscure outfit ran two reports. One is claiming that the Vietnamese leadership is quietly moving to have Hun Sen replaced from his position as the next candidate for Prime Minister in the 2013 elections. It also named Men Sam An as the possible successor. I am sure this lady was glad to read her name in this report. If she was vying for that job, nothing could have come at a worse time than this. If KI (are they connected to KI-Media at all?) is aiming to destabilize Hun Sen this was the wrong ploy. If indeed it were true, Hun Sen would just grill this lady what her plans were and simply sack her from her post. This way he would consolidate his power rather than weaken his position.

KI sent out numerous pieces of misinformation in the past, e. g. the wobbly state of the Foreign Trade Bank, and I venture to say that this is just another one.

The second story claims that Hun Sen equipped his most loyal army units with the new tanks Cambodia bought from Eastern Europe. The say he has become paranoid about a possible internal coup and will use those units to strengthen his grip on power. Historically it is true that autocratic heads of state get more paranoid the longer they stay in power but I can’t believe that this is the case with Hun Sen - quite the opposite.

Hun Sen is achieving ever-greater stature internationally with each conference, e. g. the U. S. – Asean meeting in New York, or the EU-Asean meeting in Brussels recently. The economy is on the rebound, people are not all unhappy with the current state of affairs, as in some way they do participate in it, as little as it may for the majority. I personally cannot see any unrest among the population in general.

In addition, one good indicator of the economic resurgence is the resumed strong building activity all over Cambodia, not only in Phnom Penh. Real estate prices have stabilized, although at lower level (but still too high in my humble opinion). The nomenclature, Hun Sen’s power base, is satisfied too and won’t want to upset the apple cart. And finally, Hun Sen is a close friend of Vietnam’s power elite and they couldn’t wish for a better ally in his post, I believe. So they have no reason to get him out.

It probably is true that China and Vietnam are maneuvering for dominance of the region, but it takes place on the economic front and nothing can beat China there at the moment, right?

I guess KI is just a bunch of old Lon Nol refugees in France, the U. S. and Australia who cling to their outdated views of the world and Cambodia and just can’t see that the 2010 world scene has drastically changed from the 1970ies, ‘80ies, and even ‘90ies.

This is proven in another piece they ran. Cambodian communities all over the world are organizing campaigns to revive the 1991 Paris Agreements.

Cambodian communities all over the world? Hey, how many are we talking about here – millions? Yeah, right. Estimates of overseas Khmer run anywhere from 300,000 to 400,000 worldwide. One third is too young to be politically active, one fifth is too old or too apathetic, and 80% of all adults are politically inactive to begin with (if you go by averages in other nations). What remains are maybe 20,000 people worldwide. (Wow that sure is an impressive number.) Additionally, they are not even Cambodian citizens; at least other countries see it this way. So do you think this will meet with great interest in the signatory nations? I don’t think so. As long as there is no strong movement from within Cambodia pushing for some international action, if such were needed, I can’t see how any of those countries’ governments will lend an ear to them. It is futile, can’t they see this? In this case even a constant drop in the bucket won’t fill it, believe me.

Cambodian Oddities

Although I usually refrain from writing about certain cultural particularities as this would sometimes lead people to be biased. I just consider them normal.

But there are a couple of things that really struck me as odd; they are also completely non-sensical.

There is this belief especially among middle-aged women – I have never encountered it in younger ones yet – that drinking too much water makes you fat. Consequently, they drink just a glass or two a day. It may come as no surprise to the discerning observer that a lot of people suffer from migrane and severe headaches; a direct result of dehydration. When those headaches get too bad they go see a nurse or a doctor who puts them on an IV of saline solution to replenish their body water. This is good business especially for the nurses who normally do this on the side at home; I don’t know where the saline solution comes form, and I don’t really want to speculate, but I do have my theory here.

Anyway, I wonder where this silly belief comes from. Why they choose to see a nurse for an IV so quickly – they call that whole thing ‘chah serum’ – may come from the Communist period. Health care at that time was free so it was really easy to get it. Nobody in the West would think of going to get an IV for the same symptoms. At $150 per doctor’s visit in the U. S. for instance, that is no surprise either.

The second oddity is that some people don’t dry their bodies with towels after a shower or bath. Reason: if you rub the body with that towel you rub that water into the skin. The water is not entirely clean as a lot of people, especially in the countryside, use rain water or bathe in the river. By letting their body air-dry they don’t get any bacteria into their body. Well, it may make perfect sense at first glance, but it also demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the human body.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Business Korean Style?

This is something that has only now come to my attention. There is a pretty large Korean conglomorate that opened a bank, a construction company, and an architectural design office in Phnom Penh a while back.

They had plans to build some De-Castle style condos near the airport. One of their buildings called for a height of 42 meters (I wouldn’t know how many stories that would make it). As it happened, this building was right smack in the landing and take-off zone of the airport and exceeded the permissible structure height as prescribed by air traffic control procedures and aircraft performance criteria.

Now this is a big company and one would have thought they would have some pretty well-educated persons at the top. You know what happened? They wanted to bribe the airport and air traffic control officials to give them an exemption - never mind, air safety.

When their bribery attempts failed, they simply wanted to buy the company that operates the airport. That company is French-owned and they still have some 30 years to go on their concession. Perhaps, the concession is not sellable under the terms of their contract; perhaps, the offer was not good enough; perhaps the profitabiliy is so good that no offer would have been good enough.

Anyway, give me a break. What were those knuckle-heads thinking? Anything goes in Cambodia? A lot does, but not everything.

Moving to Cambodia

Although quite a bit has been happening on both the political and economic front in the past two months I have not been able to maintain this blog for some time. I have given up my U. S. residence for good now (although I still have my business and own property there). I also moved into new homes in Phnom Penh and in Sihanouk province, which kept me busy for the last two to three months. I had lived in a furnished 2-bedroom apartment in Phnom Penh and a weekend cottage before.

I think I will have a little more time to furnish some inside info on Cambodia again in the future. First, however, let me tell those overseas Khmer considering moving back to Cambodia lock, stock, and barrel what is involved in such a move; financially, cutting through red tape, setting up or building your own home, etc.

In the past I have always encouraged overseas Khmer to move back in order to help develop the country. We all know Cambodia is still in dire need of people with a better education, know-how in modern business, experts in various fields ranging from agriculture, mid-sized construction, to small manufacturing, knowledge of international trade, and teachers, among others.

From my many encounters with Cambodians overseas I know they all long to be back in their home-country but really don’t know what to do here; whether they can afford the same things they are used to in their adopted countries, maintain the same life-style, etc. It certainly is a big decision. I am aware that most overseas Khmer just make enough to make ends meet; not a whole lot have struck it ‘rich’ overseas; they just have normal jobs; many times they barely eke out a living, oftentimes due to the lack of proficient knowledge of English, French, or German; the languages of the countries that most of them went to. Of course, their children who were born overseas don’t harbor those feelings. They more or less assimilated into the new culture and feel as belonging there rather than here. But nevertheless, I would still recommend the younger people as well to at least consider it; the money might not be as good here, in fact, it definitely isn’t, but possibly it might be more rewarding in other respects.

However, once they are ready to go ahead with their plans they may be surprised how much it actually costs to make that actual move if you want to take your whole belongings with you.

Now I had furniture for a 4-bedroom house, one SUV, one motorcycle, one 22’ power boat. My residence was Florida, which is almost exactly halfway around the world from Cambodia, so the cost is higher than from California, or Europe for that matter.

First, I forgot about the power boat. It would have cost $15,000 for the freight alone; I had checked into how much the import duty would have been, but boats weren’t in the books of the customs department. Anyway, that was too much for my taste so I simply sold the boat.

Next, I wanted to take my SUV, a 2001 MB ML320, and my motorbike, a 2003 Honda 750 Shadow ACE. Put into a container the freight would have been $5,500 for both; import duty for the MB around $11,000, and $1,100 for the motorcycle.

The lowest quote I got for the furniture, another 40’-container, was $9,300 including insurance, so altogether I was looking at around $26,000 to $27,000 just for freight and duty. My freight agent in Phnom Penh also advised me that there would be some import duty on the personal belongings, e. g. TV, computer, and such. All of a sudden that added up to possibly over $30,000.

Consequently, I scratched the car and the motorbike. I sold both which paid for the freight for the furniture. That made it a lot more acceptable. Additionally, I had an SUV in Cambodia already. We needed to add the flight tickets for the family into our tally, which set us back another $6,000 (not to mention the trip to Washington, D.C. and New York my wife and I took as a farewell tour, which slimmed our pocket books by another $4,000; but after the hassle of packing things and getting the house ready for sale we thought we had earned that trip).

When we got to Cambodia we moved right into the house in Phnom Penh my wife’s uncle and aunt had prepared for us already; additionally two of our kids had arrived a month earlier, so we didn’t have to do much on that end. Nevertheless the house needed to be furnished, we needed motorbikes for the kids to get around, etc. – cost for fridge, TV, furniture, curtains, and so on, $7,000. The furniture from our house in the U. S. was to go to our house in Sihanouk province.

That container was still on the water and it took a month until it arrived in Sihanoukville port. Total transit time from the house in Florida to Cambodia was 51 days. While we were waiting we prepared all the paperwork for the import clearance. Besides the ocean bill of lading, the Cambodian customs department requires a commercial invoice (never mind that this was a personal move), and an itemized inventory of each item. Virtually everyone in the U. S. owns some kind of gun; so did I. I wanted to take them but those were definitely no-go items. I tried for a special permit but was categorically turned down; so sold they were too.

Of course, now the haggling started over whether or not there was any import duty payable. I left that in the hands of my freight agent. To my vast relief he reported to me on the day the container was finally cleared that we were exempted as the whole affair was declared as my wife’s return to Cambodia. Nevertheless, we still needed to part with a whopping $1,350, which broke down into fees for the port, Camcontrol (the official inspection agency), import permits, clearance fees, fees for documents, approval fees, x-ray inspection fees (each container is x-rayed, so forget about trying to smuggle in something illegal, e. g. weapons, drugs, etc.), warehousing, and transportation. In comparison to clear an inbound container in the U. S. is around $60 in agent’s fees, but the terminal handling charges are about $500; anyway, it is still way cheaper in the U. S. (I know; I have owned an import business there for 20 years).

If you do the math you get a neat $25,000 plus miscellaneous out-of-pocket expenses to make that move for a family of 4. (I had gotten rid of at least one quarter of our furniture in the U.S.) Obviously only few people will move into two homes at the same time, so take off the $7,000 for house in Phnom Penh. But $18,000 plus will still make you think twice. You may deduct about $2,000 if you move from California, and $3,000 if you move from Europe. Fewer belongings won’t make a big difference as a 20’-container is about $300 less than a 40’er. The only consideration might be to sell off your stuff and start from scratch in Cambodia. If you want to maintain a Western standard it will cost you at least $15,000 too to buy everything from fridge to sofa, chairs, etc.; and it is a question of quality too.

Is it really worth making that move? It all depends on your motivation for it. Mine was pretty clear; I have a Cambodian wife, and two Cambodian children who still live at home; I firmly believed the children should go back to make their contribution to Cambodia, as small as it may be. Others might think differently; in fact, I guess most of them do.

Most serious Westerners, of course, come to live here from world-weariness, that is, weariness of our Western - what I perceive as - degeneration. It is slowly finding its way into Cambodia too, judging by what young Khmer people consider ‘in’ in terms of life style and what’s important to them. It also used to be that Westerners came here for the low cost of living. That may turn out to be a fallacy. If you live and eat like a Khmer, yes, but if you continue with your Western life-style, there is hardly any difference any more, except for eating out, rent (if you rent), medical costs, clothes. Anyway, this is the second time that I have come here to live here full-time, so there is at least one person who thought it worth it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Cambodian Catch-22

The new school year has begun or is about to begin. As always, each year students need to register for their new classes. High school student Srey Lea (that ubiquitous name for Cambodian girls) wanted to change school from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh as her grandparents who had raised her had moved there. She was quite astonished to learn, however, that the new school would charge her about $150. She would also have needed to get her transcripts from the old school, which of course would have cost some more money. It goes without saying that she didn’t have it. So in the end she stayed in Siem Reap and will finish her senior year there.

Srey Lea is the younger of two children. At age 30, her father died of liver cirrhosis when she was 3 or 4. Needless to say, they were poor, and the mother was left to fend for herself and her two young children. Her mother remarried shortly thereafter and had five more children with her second husband over the next 15 years. Srey Lea and her older brother were then raised by the grandparents as the mother could not handle that many children, not to mention she and her second husband didn’t have any money either and lived hand to mouth. Actually, they were their adoptive grandparents as they had adopted the mother when she was age 8. For all intents and purposes her mother abandoned them.

When Srey Lea graduates from high school, which will cost her money again for the diploma, she won’t have the approximately $200 it costs per semester to go to college. Her path is marked for her. She will either get married right out of high school, have children, or will get a low-paying job as a waitress, seamstress at a garment factory, or similar. She is poor so is not considered a good catch by eligible young man. Consequently, she will probably get married to someone with a similar background. Her grandparents, without money or income themselves, who found shelter with their niece, can’t be of help any more either.

Can Srey Lea break out of that poverty cycle? Not likely. She is trapped in that vicious cycle of poor people all over the world. First, her parents were poor and uneducated; consequently, had no idea of birth control; they just kept on having babies although they couldn’t even feed their children. This left Srey Lea without the means to better her own fate. Only a better education would have gotten her out of that cycle. So she will also be poor and, despite her high school education, mostly ignorant about family planning. More likely than not, she will follow in the footprints of her mother.

This is the malaise that still besets Cambodia today. Children are born into poor families, and despite their own best efforts, they have no options of finding a way out of poverty. This can only change if they will not have to worry about school fees or money for textbooks. Public schools are free of charge officially, but teachers’ pay is so low they are dependent on unofficial ‘contributions’ from parents. This can amount to about $20 to $30 a month, plus fare for a motodup if the school is a not within walking distance. Parents in the cities are looking at about $60 a month just to send their children to school. It is self-evident many cannot afford this on an income of $160 or so a month. Hence, there is still a rather high share of children who leave school after four or five grades, if that at all. This is the dire truth and, unfortunately, this means social progress will be very slow in materializing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Kem Sokha in the U. S.

This VoA report caught my eye.

He said:

“I am here today to inform you that if you feel tired and lose hope, I, who am inside the country, have no chance and no ability to fight to save our country. We need all of you to continue to support us. This is the last breath of our nation, because until now all major issues that we are seeing have not been solved.”

All of 20 people showed up for his speech in Virginia. It rather seems that this is his last breath in the U. S. instead.

But maybe Kem Sokha doesn’t live in Cambodia. He probably didn’t read the relevant reports. The country is doing much better economically judging by the statistics put forth by banks, government agencies, and not the least, the ADB. The ‘last breath of our nation?’ Poor choice of words. By trying to create a doomsday picture he certainly isn’t helping his image, if he has any to begin with.

I guess he is trying to duplicate the SRP’s efforts. Now that party has at least a few chapters registered there and all those visits by party functionaries are nothing but fund-raisers. The question is how long will even those die-hard overseas supporters foot the bills of pretty lame and uninspiring politicians. The VoA writes there is declining interest among Cambodians in the U. S. for Cambodian politics. No wonder – with these protagonists.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Practical Advice for Internet Users

This is just in case somebody out there doesn't know about this yet but my personal experience with the two major providers in Cambodia leads me to share this with you.

Mobitel still beats everybody in Cambodia with their latest low-cost high-speed offer. You get 1 GB in month for just $5. Nobody can beat that. If you happen to own a 3G phone you get really fast speeds - 460.8 Kbps. Watching videos, however, is still an arduous task. This speed is still too slow for streaming.

The one drawback is that Mobitel covers only three areas with 3G - Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap. Outside these areas it drops down to 105 or so Kbps. The price, however, is unbeatable. Even if you exceed your bandwidth you just buy another one-month subscription even if the previous month is not up yet.

Metfone is the next largest competitor. They practically cover all of Cambodia with their cable provided connections; you can get speeds from 128 Kbps up to 2048 Kbps, but it comes at a price. The slowest connection will set you back $50 a month, the fastest $510.

You take your pick.


I always thought I should not write about the traffic situation in Phnom Penh, or Cambodia in general. This is better left to travel sites; and this is not a travel site. But I am now going to comment on it anyway.

Anybody who has ever been to Cambodia knows how chaotic traffic here is. Bangkok is chaotic too, but in a different way. You just get stuck for hours on end; so much so that some savvy entrepreneurs even offer mobile toilets along the roads. But the big difference is that most Bangkok drivers still adhere to most of the traffic laws and rules; e. g. don’t go down the wrong way in a one-way street; and motorists also usually stay in their lanes.

Ho Chi Minh City is another good comparison. About 20 years back traffic was just as horrendous there as it still is on Phnom Penh. People just went every which way without regard for their own lives, let alone for other participants. This has changed also. At least mopeds and cyclos stay in the right lane whilst cars, buses, and trucks stay in the left lane.

But Cambodia is a different story altogether. I would have thought with more vehicles on the road people would see the necessity for some order in using the roadways as it would definitely increase the flow of traffic, safety, reduce toxic emissions, and lessen stress.

But nothing could be farther from the truth or reality. One must make a great distinction between mopeds and cars. Whereas many of the former are clearly suicidal, the latter surely want to maintain their prized possessions in their pristine condition, never mind that most of them are older models. They do this by driving at the slowest speed possible even if there is no other traffic far and wide.

I guess the majority of the owners of mopeds or motorcycles don’t have any idea that there are traffic laws on the book; and if they do they don’t realize that the laws are there to make life easier, notwithstanding the penalties they proscribe. Mopeds/motorcycles always seem to be in a hurry. Red lights are just seen as a nuisance that keeps them from getting to their destination quickly. Consequently, running red lights is the order of the day. Sometimes they do this at such speeds that if indeed there were cross-traffic it would surely end in a fatal accident. I have yet to see one, but the number of traffic deaths speaks for itself. Another favorite driving style is to cut in in front of oncoming vehicles; don’t ever cross over the intersection behind the oncoming vehicle; goodness, that would be too safe. Better yet, don’t even think there might be another, as yet unseen, vehicle passing the oncoming car on the right, at breakneck speed at that. No, they need the thrill of looking death in the eye.

Of course, coming down the wrong side of the road with a divider, or riding in the middle of the road although there is plenty of room on their right, is minor in comparison. In Phnom Penh you have street lighting so you can at least see mopeds without head or tail lights. Drive at your own peril on country roads at night, though. You drive too fast you might end up rear-ending a moped, a truck, or an oxcart with unwanted but clearly imaginable consequences.

Now cars are a different matter. First of all, everybody just loves a Toyota Camry, the sedan of choice for the less affluent. The more affluent and rich people have developed a clear preference for the Lexus brand. I am sure everybody needs one to go off-road to their land holdings in the countryside. But they are also so much more practical in the city. An 8-cylinder engine driving that LX470 at 15 kph, guzzling about 25 ltr/100km is definitely the most economical way of moving your 120 lb. frame forward. Lately, the new Landrover has come into style. The Mercedes S500 is definitely an understatement in Cambodia. At least the LX470 or Landcruiser have a nice size that can’t be overlooked. Well, I guess people just need status symbols, I can understand that; especially people of smaller size. In the West older man who can afford it like to own a Porsche, which is generally interpreted by most as a way of compensating the decreased virility that accompanies the aging process. In the U. S. I tend to think it’s the pick-up truck, which along with SUVs hardly ever see anything else but city streets and freeways that proves that a man is a man. So here it might just be the LX470 or the Landcruiser. Never mind that these golden calves set you back around $150K if bought new. A shiny SUV beats a nice villa any time, right?

So you have the chaotic moped riders weaving their way through those slow-moving behemoths in Phnom Penh, among them those ultra-sensible trucks that General Motors recently sold to a Chinese company. I even saw a real Hum Vee the other day. Now that sure is an absolute must for the discerning auto enthusiast.

Additionally, you will find that cars are not averse to driving on the wrong side of the street either, or running red lights, especially during lunch hour, on weekends, or at night, when the police are safe at home watching TV, if they are not in a beer garden drinking away their hard-earned traffic fines.

The role of the traffic police is really hard to understand in this country. Once the helmet law was passed they were, and still are, busy stopping moped riders to instruct them of the danger of not wearing one. Of course, the passenger on the pinion is not in as much danger, as the law makes no mention of that. Naturally, any small contribution towards the policeman’s well-being was never scoffed at.

Then came the mirror law; and the police had another reason for stopping all those mopeds. But that has all been some time ago, and I still see the police stopping them, although there was nothing noticeably wrong with them; they wore their helmets and had their mirrors in place.

Car drivers are not immune from being stopped either, though. Another addition to the traffic laws was that seat belts needed to be worn. Although I religiously put them on in the West, I was rather negligent in Cambodia. So I got pulled over twice. They reminded me politely of my negligence and were just standing there smiling. 5,000 riel released me from their smiles.

Running red lights, going against the traffic, though, was not one of their concerns. Gridlocked intersections can’t faze them either. They just look on with uncomprehending eyes, probably wondering how this all happened.

But the lasting impession about all this is the stoicism with which all participants, both car and motocycles, endure this chaos, notwithstanding the almost permanent use of the most cherished part on their vehicles – the horn.

I am pasting a YouTube video by a young man names Daniel which gives a pretty good impression.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Final Act

The Cambodian Daily wrote about the Mu Sochua case in Friday’s paper reporting that by some people’s account it enhanced her stature, especially among women. One person was reported as saying that about 50% agree with her while the other half does not. Be that as it may – I don’t believe for one moment that this ‘drama’ was on the forefront of people’s thoughts – one thing is for certain.

By impounding her salary the court avoided a greater political international scandal. Domestically, the whole case was just old hat. Internationally, of course, it caught a few headlines, although by and large it wasn’t something that aroused great interest in the Western press.

If the court had had her arrested that would certainly have produced outrage among the Western international community with possibly some consequences. The government would really have had a hard time explaining this. So far, it was just a lawsuit, a personal matter as a spokesman said. But prison for insulting the Prime Minister? It would also have made a martyr out of Mu Sochua, a person who is probably liked best within Cambodia among the opposition politicians. That was not something the government really wanted. So they found this way out. A little beyond what is generally accepted as good democratic practice, but, hey, this is still a 'fledgling democracy'. The good thing is that it is over; Mu Sochua said as much. Turn to the real issues now.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Cambodian Dilemma

A 26-year-old man, let’s call him Sun, came to me seeking advice in a very personal matter. He is planning to get married to a woman from his home village. However, he is facing a big problem. First, he has a competitor; second, he doesn’t have a home, nor enough income to support a wife, or a family for that matter. The potential father-in-law makes a living panning for gold in the Mondulkiri mountains and is moderately successful at it. That father-in-law’s brother had at one time struck lucky when he found rocks containing the equivalent of 1 kg of pure gold.

The competitor works as a carpenter in his father’s shop; in most villagers’ eyes he would be considered a good match. On top of it this, that man is Sun’s cousin. The girl herself doesn’t say much. She relies on her parents’ judgment. Sun doesn’t really know whether he loves that girl either, but he is eyeing her parents’ potential wealth; even though their current situation is not too bad already.

The girl’s parents are not exactly averse to Sun marrying her as he is also quite flexible when it comes to making money. Most of the time he acts as a guide to tourists, taking them all over town and occasionally to Siem Reap as well. He owns a car, which he bought with borrowed money from that gold prospector who lucked out once. He has since paid back the loan, so his standing with the family is quite good.

Marrying the girl would definitely mean going back to his home village in Kratie province. But what kind of job would he have there? He is still going to college too. Now that’s the real dilemma. If he loses out to his cousin that would certainly affect his manliness, at least in his mind. If he marries the girl, however, he would most certainly face a life of hardship for the first few years, if not most of his lifetime. Would he still be able to graduate from college?

He is not even sure whether he really loves the girl, and whether the girl really loves him. On the surface it looked to me more like a case of hurt pride than a basis for a marriage. Being a Westerner most will probably know what I advised him to do. After all, there are many beautiful young girls out there, or as the saying goes, there are many more mothers with beautiful daughters, why put all your money on one?

The second dilemma, of course, is Khmer tradition. Decent girls just can’t go and live with a guy to see whether they are a good match. In the West young people go out together for a while, have a relationship, and eventually move in with each other, before they get married. That’s a no, no for normal Cambodian girls. If they defy that tradition they are put on an equal footing with prostitutes. The perception of young people about this is slowly changing, but it will be a long time before people will shed their concept of the role of the sexes. Some people will even say why should it change?

So what’s a guy to do? Well, in the end he heeded our advice and let go of that inner compulsion to get married for all the wrong reasons and is now playing things by ear. The other day he told us he had to help another girl-friend in Phnom Penh whose mother was sick. It looks like it wasn’t such a big love after all.