Sunday, October 12, 2014

Something Good and Something Bad to Report (In a Small Way)

The bad news first; last year all of Cambodia and especially Sihanoukville had been plagued by incessant power outages ruining the country’s reputation as a viable tourist and business destination. Nevertheless, guests seemed to be unperturbed by this or didn’t read about it because they come in ever increasing numbers.
Now since August 2013 the power supply situation has changed for the better. I guess it was January 2014 when the last of the power plants went online to supply enough power for the foreseeable future. But if you think that the power woes, especially for the business community, are over, you are in for a disappointment. Particularly the past month has been marred by frequent and longer outages. Stupid truck drivers ran into power poles twice, cutting power for 4 or 5 hours each time. Circuit breakers seem to be of especially bad quality (made in China?) because according to the EDC’s hotline they disconnected and malfunctioned often. And then the prudent managers at EDC decided to do their maintenance work for the transfer stations all at once. The city was left without power for an entire Sunday. In addition, while they were at it, they replaced older power poles. This lasted well into darkness.

Just the other day, we had two more power cuts of undetermined causes on the same day again. Thankfully, they were only for 15 to 20 minutes each.

It appears that the people running the Sihanoukville branch aren’t quite up to the task. They may not have heard of preventive maintenance. Like all things in Cambodia they wait until it breaks down and then replace it. Anybody driving into Sihanoukville on National Road no. 4 can’t help but see the state of the power grid. At the turn-off into Sihanoukville the cables look like all jumbled up, and they have been left in this state for as long as I can remember. Perhaps,, this is symptomatic of EDC’s management approach to their business?

Now the good news. Normally, the road beds are washed partially away in the rainy season leading to potholes. Since most things are hauled by overladen trucks, these potholes become quite large towards the end of the rainy season. But this year, lo and behold, the local government seems to have understood that repairing those small potholes will prevent them from being made into virtual car traps by those trucks. Periodically, repair crews drive along roads filling up the potholes with dirt and small rocks and then pouring asphalt on top with a finish of gravel. It does the job and driving is no longer an off-road exercise. Of course, I am describing the road I use most of the time – I believe it is called 71 – from Sihanoukville to Stung Hao to Veal Renh where it connects with National Road no. 4.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sihanoukville – A Changed Town?

A couple of years ago I posted an article entitled “Will Sihanoukville Ever Become A Real Tourist Destination?” Now two years or so later I think it’s time to take another look, not the least because I have joined the hotel community myself. My hotel has been open a year now – so one gains plenty of hands-on experience this way. In one of my previous careers I looked at hotels from the tour operator’s view, now I look at it or them from behind the reception counter or my office.

First, Sihanoukville has recorded a tremendous increase of tourist arrivals. Online booking agencies (, report a 300% increase of bookings over last year. This does not take into account the arrivals from Vietnam who mostly come in tour buses, or from China who are mostly booked through travel agencies directly into the hotel. Vietnamese ranked number one, Chinese number two, Russians number three. Koreans are the third largest group for Cambodia but rank among the also ran for Sihanoukville. Altogether there were about 764,000 arrivals in the first 6 months of 2014, or a 27% increase over last year. These numbers surely are impressive.

Recently there was one charter flight from Korea to test the waters so to speak. That tour operator announced regular weekly flights next high season, but we will have to wait and see. Many times announcements are just that; Cambodia has seen and heard many of those without them ever materializing.

The fact remains, though, that Sihanoukville still lacks the infrastructure for becoming a major world-class tourist destination. A major tourist destination is defined by the number of hotel beds that at least thrice weekly flights for any given airline would be able to fill. Since there would be several airlines from different countries you are looking at about 1800 seats or a requirement of about roughly 5,400 beds for those airlines alone; if you factor in an  80% occupancy of those flights the number of beds would still be around 4,500 beds.

Specifically, there are not enough hotel rooms in the 3 to 5 star category. The hotels that cater to a specific Asian clientele are not necessarily ones that are in line with the requirements of Western, Korean, or Japanese tour operators. As with everything else, China is a new economic factor and they travel in large numbers. Of course, a tourist is a tourist, no matter where they come from, but taking Thailand as an example the majority of their tourist business is from developed countries. So in order to attract larger numbers from those the mix of hotels needs to change.  There are about 175 hotels in Sihanoukville, most of them hidden away in places where no tourist would book a room, except for the occasional backpacker. These hotels count and exist (possibly subsist) on weekend traffic from Phnom Penh. For the most part they are cheap (in the $10 to$20 range). The owners own the land and the building outright so they can afford low rates. Their income expectations are rather modest too. Since they employ almost exclusively family members they can easily live on that – for the time being. Eventually, inflation will force them to raise their rates as well.

If you look at the major areas you will get a clear distinction of the type of tourist that stays there. Victory beach is nice but is just a bit too close to the port. A port always brings murky, if not dirty, waters so the beach there is not a prime location. There are a couple of hotels that are in the 3 star category and large enough to accommodate a certain number of guests.

There is an unfettered building boom in both regular housing as well as in condominiums and hotels. Some of the larger new hotels have an outright tasteless design, but those things are in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, they still won’t fill the void.

Occheuteal Beach with its purely Cambodian ambience is home to quite a few hotels and so is Serendipity Beach. A few of those would meet international standards, but not nearly enough for those airplane loads of tourists. Most of the hotels are mom-and –pop operations and clearly aimed at the individual traveler, as does my hotel with 16 rooms.

Sokha Beach has one large 5-star international hotel, and Independence Beach also has one large 5-star property. Currently, they are the only ones able to accommodate larger numbers.

Then you have Otres Beach, which is divided into two parts – the near end and the far end. The near end is backpackers haven and as such would not count in the greater plan. The far end currently has two nice somewhat upscale hotels but they also only have 10 or 20 rooms respectively. A handful of wooden bungalows with a sort of basic flavor cater to individual tourists who like this.

Although Sihanoukville Bay is one of the world’s most beautiful bays the beaches are in need of some major overhaul for this new market. They are nice and even beautiful, well-accepted by individual travelers but a tour operator would think twice. This is why no major hotel chain has ventured into this market.

The majority of guests and hotel owners want it to stay this way - a destination for people who do not like to use organized travel.  The other main sectors are restaurants and entertainment. Except for a handful of restaurants that serve great food, especially Asian seafood, most are Cambodian eateries along the beach and consequently frequented by natives. Sometimes a look at the kitchens of those places make you doubt the quality of the food. Western places there aren’t that different either. Everybody can get their meal but to round off the attractiveness of a destination one needs a few more somewhat upscale restaurants.

For entertainment there is hardly anything for the mainstream Western tourist. Asians will like the many Karaoke places, and the casinos, if it were. But recent news reports state that this business sector is losing money. I have never understood why companies thought that gamblers from neighboring countries would come in such numbers to make this a profitable business. Anyway, I don’t see Western tourists coming for casinos. There are definitely more exciting casinos elsewhere in the world, just think ‘Las Vegas’. There are a few restaurants/bars with DJ’s on Serendipity Beach (the first stretch on the Western end of Occheuteal Beach). The music is loud, the crowd is mixed, with a lot of Cambodian girls looking for men they can lure into a tryst. This is more for the young people or the single male. Victory hill is home to many bars with taxi girls. This is the seamy side of Sihanoukville, and this together with a place close to port called chicken farm is where the whole city got its seedy reputation. This is slowly being pushed into the background as the clientele overall has changed drastically over the past few years. One sign of that is that even during the rainy season mainstream tourists come here. Before it was mostly single men who liked the cheap beer and cheap girls.

Recently, the American Embassy put out a travel advisory warning tourists not to visit Occheuteal Beach after dark, mainly Serendipity Beach, as there were reports of increased gang activities and violence against foreigners. That advisory is patently false. Yes, there was this one attack on an American who got stabbed in very unclear circumstances. But as far as violence goes, incidents are far and few between. Deaths of foreigners that occur here are mostly of elderly men having serious health problems already and succumbing to them. Tropical climates are not really for the frail elderly Western tourist. Of course, you get the occasional OD’ed tourist who shot up and did not know what he/she bought on the street from some shady character. This is a poor country and consequently you have quite a bit of petty crime, bag snatching from a motorcycle, or at night when walking on deserted streets. Burglaries is also one of the more prevalent crimes perpetrated here but these are mainly in residences, as Cambodian people still tend to keep their valuables and cash in the house. Hotels are spared as virtually all of them have security, alarm systems, CCTV, etc. I have not read or heard about one burglary in a hotel or guesthouse. As in any other developing country, if tourists observe a few simple precautions they won’t fall victim to a crime.

Altogether, Sihanoukville has become a destination in its own right as opposed to being an extension on an Indochina trip  – but for the individual traveler mostly, flashpackers and other mainstream tourists who have a normal budget but who still like the comparatively low prices. The atmosphere is very much laid-back and quiet, unlike most other, say Thai destinations. It is not yet a world-class destination by any stretch of the imagination, although officials like to fantasize it already is. They have a long way to go to reach that. Most of all, officials will have to act rather than just hold meetings and talk. They can do a lot to improve things by just cleaning up the trash in the city, regulate the beach vendors, enforce sanitation regulations, etc. Now that most of the power problems have become a thing of the past with the additional power plants in full operation and  the water supply constant, Sihanoukville has shed  some of its bad reputation and is definitely worth a visit. It has come a long way. Sun-hungry Europeans especially can spend their vacation here just like anywhere else. They can enjoy a variety of waterfront activities, eat the local food, particularly seafood, and relax in the sun with a drink in hand. In point of fact, for instance the average stay at my hotel is 10 days. So there is a tendency among some tourists to spend their entire vacation in Cambodia. After visiting Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat, a national park up north for the wildlife, or some other natural preserve, Sihanoukville is an ideal conclusion for a trip to Cambodia. This appears to be hanpening more and more and is a good sign for the tourist industry and in the end for the people of Sihanoukville and Cambodia in general.. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

CNRP Nepotism ?

About a week or so ago the King appointed 21 advisers to Khem Sokha, the new Vice President of the Cambodian Assembly. If it were the governing CPP this would not have been a surprise because they hand out these positions as a reward to the party faithful who toe the line. Khem Sokha,however, is the vice president of the CNRP.

I faintly remember that the CNRP wanted to reform the system. But I must have misread. Why would he need all these advisers? It is not that they make a whole lot of money but the image and status that goes with such a position will be turned into monetary advantages in many respects. Some of them will get the rank of state secretary and some that of a minister. Not too shabby. This is also why there are so many of them;  they just bought that position. I know someone who is a nightclub owner and also an adviser to Heng Samrin for legal matters. This gentleman is not an attorney; he does not have a law degree whatsoever. This whole thing is one more example how corrupt everybody in politics in Cambodia is – the CNRP is no exception. It is outright outrageous and flies in the face of their voters. The believed they voted for people of integrity.

On another note, speaking of the Assembly. Heng Samrin, the president of the Assembly, issued a rule for the Assembly under which the committees cannot invite people or civil society organizations to testify before them. Their attendance must be approved by Heng Samrin first. This again is an aberration of the democratic process – or in other words, politics Cambodian style. But then, Communist-style dictates are hard to erase from their heads.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

Cause of accident: a speeding drunk driver.

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

Pictures lifted from DAP – News website.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


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

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

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

Total                                                         $138 payable right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dentists Without Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initial check-up

Initial check-up

One-2-One Assistant

Converted school room into treatment room

Sterilized instruments

Waiting patients



Getting ready


Assistent from One-2-One NGO


One of the school buildings

Instrucstions which food is bad for your teeth

Treats for Cavity 

...and the good stuff

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Caved In

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Very Special Species – The Cambodian Truck/Bus Driver

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Khmer Chinese Funeral

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 14, 2014

It Couldn’t Be Any Clearer

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 31, 2014

What To Do with A Cambodian Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Health Care - A Non-Existent Priority

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Choking on Trash

Modern societies produce so much waste that it posed a great challenge for governments at all levels. What to do with all this waste? Western countries created landfills and even hills made up of garbage, trash, or anything that was broken , no longer used , obsolete and discarded - packaging, wrappings, food leftovers, old fridges, what have you.

Finally, in the 80ies and 90ies the green movement was born; scientists warned that our resources are finite; we cannot go on using things and discarding them after a short period of time (planned obsolescence comes to mind). The idea that many things, like packaging, old newspapers could be reused by recycling it made a lot of sense but obviously hadn’t been thought of before. We have to thank the green movement and so-called tree-huggers for the basically simple idea of recycling, whether it is plastic made from fossil fuels, paper and carton made from wood, or iron made from minerals. It also created a new industry that deals with the disposal, recycling, and re-use of waste.

Western Europe has made great strides in that direction. Germany is famous for their trash separation, where people have three trash bins – one for food, one for paper, one for glass. Apart from doing this at home, people deposit bottles, cans, and larger quantities of papers in large containers strategically located in neighborhoods. They even have a waste control police that spot-check home trash bins before collection takes place.  If they find stuff in the wrong bin, you can and will be fined. That may be an extreme and really over the top but it still is for the good of the people.

One cannot expect this kind of ‘awareness’ in Cambodia. Apparently the governments at all levels have seemingly forgotten about this problem. Normally, local administrations would be responsible for this, but given the size of Cambodia, even a national law would be desirable.

What is taking place in Cambodia with regards to their waste is simply intolerable. Yes, all developing countries, and not only them, look and behave in a similar fashion. People simply throw their garbage out the window; in better neighborhoods they have garbage bins, often without lids, and often enough they overflow after just a few days. Garbage collection seems to be according to some haphazard schedule nobody can really divine. Once the collection is over the streets look worse than before the collection - strewn with bits and pieces of trash that fell from the truck, or the trash collectors had missed the truck when they aimed and tossed a bag from farther behind - a feast for rats and some neighborhood dogs that scavenge trash for edible leftovers.

Roadside vendors simply put their trash on a heap next to their stall and burn it before they close. Burning is the preferred method in the countryside too. But before that happens it accumulates along the roads or behind houses for a while, smelling, rotting away, and attracting rats and other vermin. Even the cows forage the trash. Outside the provincial capitals there is no garbage collection whatsoever. Consequently, it will look like this in some places.
After a 'concert' in a small town

Along Hun Sen Beach on a good day

After a picnic along a highway

After a picnic along a highway

People simply don’t think about the health hazards that come with such open trash sites besides the environmental concerns.

My house is located right on a river about 800 m from the open sea – in between two fishing villages. The river bank is covered by mangroves, which are protected; it would really be a beautiful and serene area. But what the local people do to it is simply shameless. The many fishing boats discard their plastic cups, water bottles over board, which then wash up in the mangroves during high tide. In low tide that trash is scattered all over the riverbank. The dirt roads in the villages are also constantly covered with discarded plastic bags.

Plastic bags are the bane of Cambodia and one of the major causes of this environmental evil. Even for the smallest item shops put it in a plastic bag. They even serve cold drinks in them. Once people are finished with that they simply toss it out the car window, for instance. The other day at the restaurants in Pich Nil (halfway point to Sihanoukville) I observed a lady getting out of their Camry with such plastic bag in her hand.  A trash can was right next to it. That lady just dropped it at her foot. What was she thinking?

When I asked my former caretaker at my house what he does with our trash he told me he put it in the river, weighted down with some rocks. I asked if he ever thought about the environment. He just looked blankly back at me. But from then on he started burning it, plastic bottles and all. Personally, I am still wondering what to do with used batteries.

I had forgotten to instruct my new caretaker, and she promptly threw it into the woods near our house. Fortunately, we saw this and gave appropriate instructions. Of course, she didn’t know any better having lived in one of the nearby villages all her life. The irony of all this is that the town has an environment officer who lives in that same village. He complained about the new coal fired power plant near Sihanoukville (which is right on the beach with a long pier jutting into the ocean so that the cargo vessels delivering the coal can unload it). Perhaps he should look closer to home first.

Of course, there could have been a better location but that stretch of beach north of the Sokha and Tela depots with their piers had begun to be industrialized before with a paper mill and another oil depot. That power plant has been operational since July/August, producing 60 MWH. Amazingly, I have yet to see black or grey smoke belching from the pretty tall chimney. They must have installed some pretty filters. Could it be that they did have some good planners at work?

Between Sihanoukville and the Sokha oil depot there is a nice stretch of beach right alongside the road. It’s called Hun Sen Beach. You should see it after a holiday. The grass is practically covered in plastic bags and empty Styrofoam containers.  I am wondering how the prime minister can give his name to such an eyesore. If it weren’t for all that trash, this could become one more attraction for Sihanoukville, provided the people in charge will somehow manage to have the road repaired in such a way that it won’t be full of potholes after each rainy season. To their credit, they built a small park at the beginning of that beach, which looks sort of clean practically all the time. Maybe people did learn to use the trash cans they put there.

Mankind wasn’t born as environmentalists. But this is 2014 – the age of blazing communication streams, information spreading around the world in seconds, where Cambodian TV commercials show clean and modern neighborhoods. Even the soap operas show villages devoid of any obvious trash.  

When I see all this I am wondering why this does not sink into the Khmer consciousness. Don’t they want to make a better life for themselves that also includes a healthy and sustainable environment – not only a better material life with cars? 70% or so still live in rural areas where education is sketchy and it all has to do with education. Sometimes I think that the Khmer mind has undergone a severe change during and after the Pol Pot years. It did not use to be like this before the Pol Pot era according to accounts from people who lived then. Environmental education should be made part of the school curriculum. Although tangible progress will be some time in coming; after all, the parents ought to be the first ones to be educated. But Cambodia has to make a start unless the country does not want to submerge in trash.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Only in Cambodia

Although this term is supposed to apply to the U. S. in this case I guess it only applies to this country. The press reported a recent incident that really makes your hair stand up on end.
A senior provincial police officer was speeding along a highway in a full-size SUV at considerable speed. He hit a light motorbike with 3 people on it seriously wounding them. Local police came to the scene trying to investigate. The police officer told them to wait until he had changed his tire as it was obviously damaged because of the collision. He had also given the police a business card with his name. But to the local police’s surprise when he was finished he just got into his SUV and sped away. The injured motorbike riders were taken to the main hospital in Phnom Penh, where all three had to have one leg above the knee amputated. A short while later one of them succumbed to his injuries and died.

Now the local police instead of pursuing this right away just said they will go after the driver and arrest him. One would expect them to act immediately. After all, this has become a crime the minute he left the scene of the accident – a slight variation of a classical hit-and-run. But here comes the clincher: they will wait until after the Khmer New Year celebrations from Apr. 14 to 16.

How dumb can the police be? Sure, it was a fellow police officer but only in Cambodia can a thing like this happen. He was of a higher rank so they first kow-towed to him, and then let them repair his car and gave him an opportunity to flee. To add insult to injury they would then let him celebrate New Year first before they would come and arrest him. So clearly, these celebrations are more important than the life of people and giving them justice. This is an intolerable disgrace.

Something is very wrong in Cambodia. It is all too apparent that the higher-ups can break the law with impunity. One almost expects this in a country like this. Wherever you look in the world, it is always the developing countries where lawlessness and corruption are rampant. Obviously, the attitude and behavior of the so-called elite and political leadership has influenced the entire administrative and executive body of the country. I had always been inclined to think that over time the development of the country would also translate into a more just system, in which the concept of rule of law and intellectual maturity would eventually take hold. Looking back about 8 years I can’t help but come to a different conclusion. I am getting the feeling the country is on a downward slope as far as personal characters go. The attitude towards traffic rules and accidents is but one sign of this. Progress is only achieved in material ways, and actually only for a very small section of the people. It may be an over-simplification but that perceived degradation might be caused by the prevalent impunity with which the powers-that-be commit transgressions of the law and with the general population thinking why should I care when nobody else does.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Warranty Cambodian Style

This is something that I haven’t come across in my long-time experience in Cambodia. I guess this is simply because I was never in the situation where I needed to get something fixed that I recently bought. But with the building of the hotel and buying quite a bit of appliances and furniture for the rooms I was faced with this issue far too many times in my opinion.

Don’t even begin to think it works like in your country. The way it works here is like this. The store will issue an invoice stating that there is a warranty of 3, 6, 12 months, although the 12 months is almost unheard of. Usually, it is only 3 months. If they are a little more precise they will say that the warranty covers only labor charges for repairing the defective item. Any spare parts needed you will have to pay extra. Under no circumstances will they take the item back and exchange it.

With smaller appliances this is not so difficult as you can take them back to the store easily and most of the time it is only a minor repair anyway. But when it comes to installed air conditioning units or water heaters it is a different story. I wrote about the reliability of technicians/contractors already. When they finally come, they usually need to take the unit down and back to the store. Then it might take a day or two if they can fix it there. If not they need to send it to a specialist, and that is always located in Phnom Penh. If you are in another town, like us in Sihanoukville, the repair time might stretch to over  a week. If you happen to run a hotel  you practically can’t rent that one room, even if it has fan. Western people simply expect an a/c in a 3-star hotel.

The same thing happened to us with a water heater. We installed water heater tanks that are not visible in the bathroom; we bought those in Phnom Penh. When one of them broke down they asked us to ship it back. Can you imagine what that meant? Uninstalling it from above the room and shipping it to Phnom Penh, or alternatively, have a technician come here at our expense.

We ended up buying another one locally and had it installed in no time at all. We simply didn’t know they were available here. Cambodian hotels usually use those flow-through water heaters. We then had the defective one repaired on one of our next visits to Phnom Penh. Of course, the defective part we paid separately - $25.

I have never had so many new appliances break down after only a short time.  The reason for that may be, at least that’s what I think, that Cambodian importers buy second-grade or even third-grade merchandise so they can be competitive. Traditionally, they also work on very slim margins so there are no funds for warranties. A second reason is that Cambodian importers are usually not authorized agents/importers for a brand. They buy it from a trading company in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, or China. The ironic thing is that most products nowadays are made in China in the first place, even the ones sold in the U. S. or Europe. But those importers have on-site agents for quality control and usually very stringent purchase agreements. So Cambodia has to practice a make-do warranty policy, which is coupled with one thing I have also observed over my long time here. People in general do not take responsibility for anything. They simply will not admit to a mistake; they might lose face too, and that is something they can’t stomach. So when you buy something here in Cambodia you better keep this in mind.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Parliamentary Boycott and Is It Working?

It’s been almost 9 months since the election here in Cambodia and 7 months since the constituting session of the Assembly. As we all know the opposition party is continuing to boycott the parliament stating that the election was rigged and therefore they cannot recognize the results. If they were to take their seats this would be tantamount to recognition of the election results.

Constitutional scholars are not in agreement on the interpretation of the constitution with respect to this boycott and whether the two sessions held so far, and during which laws were passed, were legal under the constitution. They are not even agreeing about the article that says the assembly consists of at least 120 members. As in all such cases a lot has to do with semantics. The binding text is in Khmer, which unfortunately after many years of studying I still can’t read, so consequently I am not sure what the original text says. The English translation simply uses the word ‘comprises’. I am not a legal scholar, of course, but from my education and experience in the West, both Europe and the U.S., this would signify and give only the total members of the assembly to be elected. This is independent of the actual sitting members at any one time. Sometimes laws are passed with a tiny fraction of the elected members present.

 If an elected member does not take the oath of office for whatever reason this would amount to an intrinsic resignation (or would it?). Under normal circumstances the next candidate in line on the party’s list moves up to take that seat. If no other candidate is available because the entire party boycotts the assembly, this would normally result in a new election.

However, the constitution also states that the Assembly cannot be dissolved before the end of the mandate unless the government was voted out twice within a 12-month period. What does that exactly mean? Western democracies have a vote of confidence. If the prime minister loses it, a new election is called. This ‘voting out’ could be construed as a vote of confidence. But for this to be held one needs the opposition present. So the prime minister and his government cannot be ‘voted out’. Consequently, the National Assembly cannot be dissolved. The next question then is whether the current Assembly is legal under the constitution or not.

The CPP maintains that it won the election, their members took the oath and the King opened the 5th mandate of the National Assembly, thereby legitimizing the composure of the assembly even without the opposition party’s members having taken their oath or being present. Here the interpretation becomes a little abstract. At the time during the constituting session and the oath was administered the opposition members-elect did not show up. But the ruling party’s members all took their oath. The majority of the members are, therefore, legitimate. The Assembly as such would appear to be fully functional.

As mentioned above the opposition party’s members not only did not show up they even refused to take their oath at a later time. This is tantamount to an abandonment of the election results of each of their districts. The conclusion from this is that the candidate who won the district changes from the original winner (CNRP) to the loser, in all of those cases (at least to my knowledge) a CPP member. So the prime minister’s contention to fill the seats with their own party’s candidates is not entirely without merit. In my view the CNRP really runs this risk if they continue with their current strategy.  So what we have here on the surface is a functional parliament, 55 members-elect abandoned their seats, in fact resigned. In any other democracy this would automatically lead to a new election. It is a rather unique situation due to the incomplete article in the constitution. The authors should have included the vote of confidence. De facto, no matter how you look at it from a legal standpoint, the current government is a care-taker government, and this may last another four and a half years. The opposition does not gain one inch of ground or achieve anything of their political agenda by holding on to their intransigent stance.

Now the other question is whether the election was valid. Neutral observers say it was flawed. First, the opposition party was not given enough media campaign opportunities. Most media in Cambodia are controlled, at least indirectly, by the ruling party. (It is, therefore, all the more surprising that the CNRP did win 55 seats, up from a meager 24 plus 1 in the past election.) Second, voter registrations were really dubious. Third, many voters were barred from voting to begin with, either by not having been registered, or after being registered subsequently being dropped from the voting list. Sometimes, reports say voters were even turned away more or less forcibly from polling stations. Nevertheless, major governments, among them France and Australia, recognized the elections by congratulating the prime minister for his victory. That in itself is not legally binding, of course, but it goes to show that the international support the CNRP is so loudly clamoring for is just not there. Others, like the U. S., did not officially recognize the election but they deal with the results as if it were legitimate; for instance, they did not recall their ambassador, even temporarily. The opposition claims it is not business as usual any more, but after 7 months one cannot but say it is. Bottom line: even if it was flawed and partially rigged, the election must be considered valid. In comparison, a prime example was the 2000 U. S. presidential election. People are still arguing about the legality of the result. But in the end the results stood and political life went on. Though the circumstances are different here the fact remains that the government is in place and continues with their business .

Whatever goes through their heads, it should have become clear to the CNRP leadership that this boycott is counterproductive. The previous King was able to resolve a similar situation before but the present King is not inclined to involve himself. So it is up to the parties to resolve this on their own. Obstinacy is never a good bargaining tool. Taking their seats has more advantages and will probably pave the way for an outright victory in the next election than holding mass demonstrations which in the end might backfire with the population. One can lose a lot of credibility threatening things and then not following through with them.  A large part of Phnom Penh’s population thinks of them more as a nuisance than anything else. Cambodia is no Middle Eastern country, nor is it the Ukraine. Events there cannot be duplicated here. The stakes and the circumstances there were vastly different. Cambodia has not geostrategic or political value to Western powers. And the Chinese are firmly on the CPP’s side.

The boycott may come to end within the next few days, according to the latest news. They finally found a compromise about holding an earlier election, though most likely in the same year in order to comply with the constitution. Not much gain for the CRNP. Another issue was the composition of the Election Committee. That seems to have been a breakthrough and a point for the CNRP. But the fact remains that the boycott was not really effective. They didn’t force the ruling party into major concessions and changes. Business has gone on as usual. From his original demand for Hun Sen to step down and for sweeping changes nothing much is left.  So was it worth it? Given the results and considering the demonstrations and the strikes that were surely somewhat inspired by the demonstrations, the cost was too high in both human and material loss.

News break: somebody threw a monkey wrench into the works as now obviously the election is not early enough. Kem Sokha seems to have objected. The two leaders stand in their own way and they play politics for politics sake. This is typical Sam Rainsy. One day he says this, the next day it is no longer good. First they have an agreement, now they don’t. I am no fan of the CPP, but with an opposition like this how can you ever reach a compromise?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Daily Insanity

I don’t want this to be a rant but it will probably come like one anyway. I am talking about Cambodian truck and overland coach (Capitol, Rith Mony, Mekong, etc.) drivers. It is a well-known fact that Cambodians in general don’t have a clue that traffic rules and regulations actually help. They were not passed to deprive people of their cherished freedom. They were passed to make it safer for everybody. People who just comply with the most basic of the rules will or would survive even the most chaotic traffic conditions. I understand there are even worse places than Cambodia, e. g. India, Egypt, and others. Traffic fatalities prove the point. They have been on the rise every year for the past decade or so.

But the worst are the truck and bus drivers. They pass without regard to whether or not the road ahead is clear, or whether there is a curve about 100 m ahead. It appears as if they don’t want to lose the speed they are traveling at at that given moment, perhaps they are afraid it will take a bit until they reach that speed again once they had to brake down. How do those head-on collisions happen? Let’s say a passenger car is going at 100 km/h on a clear stretch of road; there is a slight curve ahead and, whoa, going into that curve they are all of sudden faced with a bus or truck coming their way passing another large vehicle. The good thing, of course, is that the truck can still flash his lights to tell you, ‘Hey, careful I am coming.’ I have seen at least three accidents like this myself. The result: the people in the passenger car are smashed to pulp; the truck veers off the highway and ends up in a ditch. If the driver survives with only a few scratches, chances are that he will take off and vanish in the bushes.

I drive from my little town about 20 km from  Sihanoukville to the hotel almost every day. That road is very narrow going through villages along the road; they are really nothing more than an accumulation of wooden shacks. But whole families with kids and dogs live there and it actually quite crowded in certain places. If that road is 10 m wide it is big. It seems to be a hobby for those drivers to go through these villages at the highest speed possible. Something is in their way? Honk, honk! They just stare straight ahead shutting out the world left and right of them. If they are fully loaded with, say, cement, they can’t go fast, but if they are empty, breakneck speed is the motto. The road in some places is a little hilly. They come barreling downhill like there is no tomorrow, sometimes with a trailer at that. Sure enough, they are on the phone at the same time with only one hand on the steering wheel. If there ever were an obstacle and they had to brake down, that trailer truck would jackknife and any oncoming motorbike and its rider would be history.

Observing this really makes one wonder whether something is wrong genetically with Cambodian people. The minute they get on a motorbike or into a car/truck they seemingly change into a different personality. Does anybody have another explanation for this?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Cambodian Staff

My experience with staff has so far been limited to help in the house and the workers on the rubber plantation. The latter usually don’t pose a problem. Once a year they want a raise, which we had been able to give them every year.  This year they have been awfully quiet about this subject as a large plantation nearby laid off 3,000 workers. Their trees had reached the non-productive stage and were cut down. Until the new saplings produce it will be six to seven years.  Although there are a lot of new plantations in other provinces, most notably in Kompong Thom, Preah Vihear, and Rattanakiri, most of them don’t produce yet, and most people don’t really want to relocate. So they seem to be happy to have a job at all.

The Prime Minister once exhorted workers not to go abroad to find work but stay here. The rubber plantations needed all the hands they could get. This sure is a bit out of touch with reality.  Most wages in Thailand, Korea, and Malaysia are usually around $500 a month whereas on a plantation here they make about $150.

My caretaker at the house who had been with me for 4 years turned out to be a gambler. We never found out until one day the GPS unit on my boat went missing. He said he didn’t notice it initially; only when he hosed it down one day did he see it was gone. We were abroad at that time but he had our kids’ phone numbers. He did not find it necessary to call them. Neither did he call the police which would have been the normal thing even in Cambodia. We are well-known in our little town, and the mayor of the village, or the chief of Sangkat would have ordered an investigation. The whole thing sounded really fishy to us. We decided to let him go. He was a pretty good worker and could do almost everything and sometimes had really good ideas. But he tended to lose things, e. g. tools, break them or generally did not take care of anything. It is really frustrating when you have to tell him all the time what needs to be done.

When he was gone, a few people from the nearby villages showed up and asked about him. He owed them money; $40 here, $50 there. He also played cards, bet on all kinds of things, and as one can imagine, he usually lost. So it probably is not a stretch to believe that he used the GPS unit to guarantee some of his gambling debts. The best thing about this is that only the head unit without the transducer was taken. The cables, the mount was still there. It would have been sort of hard to dismantle all this and would have required some expert knowledge. He clearly didn’t have this. Still, I was left with damage worth $600. You can’t get these things easily in Cambodia so I have them shipped in from the U.S.

The next caretaker I hired seemed decent enough. He worked as guard at the power plant nearby and wanted to have an easier job. He was recommended by an acquaintance of ours, actually he was his son-in-law. So next thing we know is that he didn’t show up but his aunt did to look after things. Of course, she wouldn’t be any help launching my boat – which is a job for two at my place. The guy did occasionally show up at night to sleep there but he had a wife and kid so most nights, especially when we were not there, he wouldn’t be at the house altogether. We needed to let him go after two weeks – all without hard feelings.
Then we had an elderly couple who came by after we had the previous guy ask around. They looked ok and seemed to need a job pretty badly. They said only two people. When they started work, all of a sudden there were three. They took care of their granddaughter.  Well, we were in need of someone to look after the house in our absence so we let this slide. It worked out ok for a while. When we started the hotel we thought we could use the wife to help out as maid. She liked the job and the different surroundings so she started working there full-time. Now the real nature of the husband came to the fore. He was and is a lush. One time I even had to climb over the wall because he was drunk and fast asleep and didn’t hear my honking or shouting. He promised it wouldn’t happen again. Of course, alcoholics can’t keep a promise. Sure enough, next time we were gone for a couple days, he was not there when we got back. He was out ‘buying food’. We needed to let him go. What good is a caretaker for if he doesn’t take care things?

I described the work ethics of contractors in my previous post. As for the hotel staff I thought it would be fairly easy to find people willing and ready to work, given that there still are many young people without job. Not so. We needed staff with a basic knowledge of English, and preferably some experience in the hotel/restaurant business. To my surprise there weren’t many around in Sihanoukville it seems. We hung out a ‘for hire’ sign. The bartender was the first we hired, a young girl barely 20 years old but with a thorough knowledge of cocktails. The bartender knew a woman who could cook some Western food, so she was put on the payroll next. In short order we were nevertheless able to fill our available jobs, including the front office manager who really did a good job of selling himself.

I can’t really complain about the hotel staff except for the bartender. One day she simply didn’t show up and didn’t call either. The cook lives next to her so she asked would she come in this afternoon. Ah, she was feeling sick and would come a little later. Well, again she didn’t call or anything. She simply didn’t show up. But she was there the next day. This happened twice and we were getting ready to fire her when she resigned on her own, apologizing, and saying she would just like to work as a temp to fill in when the other staff had their day off. She was also afraid ghosts in the evening – a pretty common phenomenon among Khmer people. So far our hotel is pretty quiet in the evenings as we don’t serve dinner, and the guests go out to eat and usually don’t come back until 9 pm or later.  Since that change we haven’t had a problem.
The front office manager is a dud. He is still working for us so I won’t go into any details here.  

The main problem I found with Cambodian staff is their general lack of knowledge and their obvious  inability to think logically. Of course, these are all unskilled laborers with little schooling. Some are even completely illiterate. I really can’t hold it against them, but it is kind of frustrating when running a business. I can only imagine what factories with hundreds of workers go through. But then, if it weren’t like this from where would the West get their cheap clothes – H&M, Walmart, etc., come to mind. Basically, the West is just exploiting countries like Cambodia to meet their growth and profit goals. All the nice words about labor standards and minimum wage are merely lip service to appease those pesky human rights proponents. Adidas, H&M apparently didn’t pay attention to the minimum wage issue until the strikes turned violent and left one dead recently.

To be honest, the tourist and hotel business basically falls into the same category. Where else can you offer rooms for $15 or $20 a night if not in countries like Cambodia where people make $120 a month. I would gladly pay higher wages if the market would allow it. I would have to raise room rates but would price myself out of the market with that. Although there are only a handful of hotels in the same category in town,  I am sure they would have enough capacity to absorb my guests without a problem.  Now why can I survive, and hopefully I will? The key to success is offering a different standard from what’s available already.  But that is a subject for another post.