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.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Is The Recession Over?

By economic standards, yes. The Cambodian economy is growing again, so officially it is over. This is borne out by the increase of tourist arrivals, the rise in exports, sale of cars and trucks, where imports jumped by 35% and the resumption of construction activity in the first half of 2010. According to the Ministry of Commerce, the agricultural sector is contributing to the growth significantly, which I can, of course, personally confirm from my own experience.

Unfortunately, this is combined with increased inflation, one sign of which is the increase in gasoline prices. Regular gas is now about $1.04 versus about $.90 per liter at the beginning of the year. The riel has also come under pressure prompting the National Bank to sell dollars from its reserves, trying to reduce the volume of the riel. So far, as much as I can see, this has had limited effect, as the riel still is at KHR 4270 to the dollar. The National Bank tries to keep it between KHR 4000 to KHR 4200.

What surprises me most, however, is the real estate and construction sector. I am no longer involved in looking for land or in developments, but from what I can see around Phnom Penh, there are still many Cambodian–style flats, or town houses, sitting empty. But I see new ones springing up everywhere now. Where and to whom are these people selling their houses? Where I live in PP, about half of the ‘gated community’ sits empty, but the developer nevertheless added about 20 units. Of course, all the existing ones had been sold (prior to the bust). People who bought them as investments aren’t getting any return on them, neither as rent nor by re-selling them at a profit.

Opposite that gated community a new development is being built. Guess what? It’s a compound of Cambodian flat houses again. I don’t really know what to make of that. There is glut on the market already but they are still building new ones?

Camko has resumed building their high-rises. From what I hear they have a new management in place, which was obviously able to tap into fresh working capital. Other than that, however, I don’t see any of the big development plans, e. g. Koh Rong resort development, or the Stung Hao international port, making any great strides towards realization or making much progress. Stung Hao International Port has put up an impressive portal and they started blasting the hill, but I haven’t seen any other activity for over a year now.

In the West they usually build the entrance last, but here it is obviously important to have a great portal first in order to show (off) the size of the investment. That ridiculous gate at the Grand Phnom Penh City is a case in point.

A little digression here: I also like the new Koh Pich. They built a nice park for the public. Although it still needs more landscaping it makes for a nice view of the area. I just don’t know what it is with the Greek monopteros-style gazebos. They do look nice but I find them a little misplaced in Cambodia. An absolute eyesore in my mind is the almost completed government building next to the new Council of Ministers building on Russian Boulevard. Whereas the existing building is daring in its architecture and definitely an interesting design, that new building is just a monstrosity, which reminds me of Soviet-style architecture with a slight Cambodian touch.

So money seems to be flowing again, what with the multiple projects under way all over the city, and new cars coming onto the roads (I only wish new trucks would replace those old run-down, ready-to-break-down trucks in use now). On a different note, I seem to be seeing a lot more vehicles with military plates again; also the green plates of the state appear to be mushrooming. They also appear on high-end SUVs all of a sudden, whereas before that was rather the exception.

But as before, that money seems to flow in the same circles, namely the ones who have it use it to hand it over to other people who also have it, in other words, it’s the business people and the upper echelon civil servants driving all this. Of course, there is also foreign money from China, Vietnam, and South Korea still flowing in. The consuming part of the population, however, is still so small that it will not have any noticeable effect on boosting a consumer-driven economy. That will still be some time in coming. A good way of seeing this is the Lucky market clientele. Besides all the expats and tourists, you see what I would call the Khmer upper-middle and upper class shopping there. You can tell by the way they dress.

Average people still have a hard time making the money it takes to break through the subsistence level. Most people just make enough to eat; they live hand to mouth so to speak. There is nothing left over to put aside for getting a business started, or expand the one they might already have.

But this is in large part due to the prevalent general ignorance of people of how to go about getting a loan, for instance. A good example is a couple who started a car/driver-for-hire business. They borrowed $5,000 from a loan-shark; they euphemistically call themselves micro-finance people. There are many of those operating in every market. The couple is paying $150 a month as interest, in other words, 36% p. a. Of course, there is no collateral so a higher interest rate in justified, but 36%? Well, somebody told the couple to go ACLEDA, the largest small-business lender in Cambodia, and a highly successful one at that. ACLEDA loans money for this kind of business using the car as collateral. The interest rate was 15% p. a. The couple was told to contact a certain person who is an acquaintance of the person advising them.

They did go to the bank, but spoke to somebody else who just shoved a sheaf of paper into their faces, which they didn’t know how to fill out. Intimidated by all this, they left it at that and now continue paying $150 a month.

Another example is a young man who will graduate next year from college with a degree in ‘tourism’, which includes some sort of business management classes. He wanted to start a fishing business in Rattanakiri and needed $500 to buy a motor for a boat. Did he do any research whether or not this business would be viable, what the competition is like, etc. No, he didn’t. Consequently, he didn’t get that $500. It looks like there are enough fishermen around already, right? Why would somebody who is studying tourism want to go into the fishing business?

This all just goes to show, that the key to improving their livelihoods starts with a good education – a sort of a platitude, I know, but that’s what is boils down to. Yeah, I know the educational system sucks, but, still, there are people who know how to use it to their advantage. I know a young lady who got a BA in marketing from the state university. She graduated top of her class and got a Fulbright scholarship in the U. S. Now she is back with a master’s degree and found a job with a financial institution.

A final word to some of my readers who simply disagree with everything I write about. Don’t start making comments again about corruption and it’s all the government’s fault that Cambodia is in this state. We have covered this ad nauseum, so save your energy.