About my ebook: Serendipity Road

I’ve sent my manuscript to a professional formatter. I don’t trust my ability to format it for ebook distribution. It’s on hold for now because I want my friend Penny Sisto to read the revised version. She liked an earlier version, but I’ve chopped and changed a few things and want her feedback before I publish Serendipity Road. Here’s a link to her website: Penny Sisto.

my old cover

This was my original cover. I was tempted to use it because my friends went out of their way to help me with it. We spent half a day looking for the right path and my friend formatted the cover. When I decided it was time to publish, I realized I wanted a retro cover, so I hired someone to make one for me.

I may still use the photograph, but I think it would be better as a back cover. The front cover is the beginning of my journey. Having a time towards the end of my journey would be appropriate for the back cover. Whether I use it or not will depend on sales. If I sell enough copies, I may have the book printed as a Print on Demand (POD) book or may have it printed here in Cambodia and try to sell it to bookshops here.

I almost changed the title, but Serendipity Road is the perfect title. Not only is there a Serendipity Road in Sihanoukville, the title reflects the road I’ve taken in life, too.

I’m enormously grateful for all the help my writing group gave me and the feedback I’ve received about the book from Penny and other people. Jan Cornall, turned out to be partially responsible for my having a writing group to help me. Jan holds writing workshops in exotic locations like Morocco, Bhutan and Bali. I attended one of her workshops in Bali. She came to Sihanoukville and I organized a mini-workshop here. One of the attendees started our writing group. If it hadn’t been for the group, I would never have written a memoir.

About My eBook Serendipity Road

My new cover

Serendipity Road is a departure from what I usually write about on Sihanoukville Journal. Originally, it was going to be about Sopheak’s remarkable early life, but that only took up a couple of chapters. My writing group encouraged me to write a memoir, so that’s what I did. It is set in Cambodia, but covers my life from 1968 to the present day in a series of flashbacks. I dropped out of college in 1969 and worked as a yoga instructor during the summer at a yoga retreat in the Sierra Mountains. When I became disenchanted by the retreat, I traveled to India twice. I got hepatitis and almost died the first time. I came home and after I recovered, I went back and hung around Neem Karoli Baba as much as I could.

I went back to San Juan Ridge after my second trip to India. Then I moved to San Francisco. In 1985, we moved to Australia where we lived an almost idyllic life in a beautiful coastal suburb. I started surfing again and probably would never have left if my life hadn’t fallen apart.

A tarot card reader in Bali told me to take the Fool’s path and let fate be my guide. By the time I traveled to Southeast Asia in 2006, I’d run out of ideas and elevated fate to goddess status. I called her Serendipity. She looks kind of like one of these goddesses. I know, she might be a product of my imagination, but that’s okay. I’d rather see a goddess floating on a cloud than a stern god with a long beard and angry frown.

Writing a memoir gives you the opportunity to write flattering things about yourself. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to tell the truth: hence the subtitle, between heaven and hell. I’ve had some remarkable spiritual experiences, but I’ve also done a lot of dumb things. I didn’t edit out the dumb things. Some of the spiritual (or paranormal) stories some readers may not believe. They are true stories, though. If I have doubts about some of them, I admit them, but I have no doubts about many of the stories.

Here are a few chapter summaries:

  • Inside Tree, tells about Sopheak getting lost in the jungle at the age of 8 or 9. She may have lived alone in the jungles of Cambodia for up to 2 years. When she came out, her family had moved on and she lived in an orphanage in Phnom Penh for a while until a man and his wife gave her a series of jobs. Then she reunited with her family.
  • The Honeycomb of Time, tells two stories about people who predicted my future in Cambodia. I went to a psychic workshop and a fellow amateur psychic described my house in Sihanoukville to a tee and even saw me working on my computer. A palm reader in Sydney told me I would have two more children. I doubted her, but she was right.
  • A Cambodian Ghost Story is about a ghost who lived in a mango tree outside the little house we lived in while we were building our house. He visited Sopheak and told her I wasn’t being forthcoming with my kids in Australia. He was right.
  • Surrealistic Pillow tells the story of our first housekeeper. She was a sweet girl, but had a hard life. I saw her possessed by her mother and baby sister, both of whom were dead. Then her older sister possessed her. She had an axe to grind and was harder to get rid of.
  • My Guru Who Wasn’t My Guru is a flashback to India. Krishna Das sent me a link to a photograph of me in India in 1972 with Neem Karoli Baba and I relive the amazing experiences I had there. I sent the photograph to the person who made my cover and the picture above is what she came up with.

Other chapters are more mundane and cover things that happened in Sihanoukville.While they may be more mundane, I didn’t choose boring stories. The stories are about life, death and the good and bad things in between.

As I wrote the book, I realized fate had been responsible for much of what has happened in my life. Granted, I had to take advantage of the opportunities fate placed in my path, but so many things wouldn’t have happened without the intercession of fate (or Serendipity), my life would be much different. If I’d followed a safe career path, I might still be in Manhattan Beach, California, but I chose to let fate be my guide when I dropped out of college. I’m glad I did. Life has been much more interesting and rewarding since I let go of the reins of my life. When I’ve tried taking back the reins, things haven’t worked out quite as well.

As I said, I’m waiting for Penny’s feedback. I don’t know when it will come. She has a busy life, so I’ll have to be patient. When I get her feedback, I’ll make revisions if needed. Then I’ll publish Serendipity Road and see what happens. Like everything else in my life, it is in fate’s hands. 

Two perfect weekends in Sihanoukville

My idea of a perfect weekend is going to a café with a good book and following it up with a swim. Everything cooperated with me the past two weekends, so I enjoyed two perfect weekends in Sihanoukville. I finally got my copy of Brian Gruber’s War: The Afterparty and the weather has been nice the past two weekends.

escape in sihanoukville

I go to Escape on Serendipity Road on weekends for my coffee. I go there for three reasons:

  1. The owner is nice
  2. The cappuccinos are good and come with brown sugar, which I prefer over white
  3. I can easily get to Sokha beach from there

Fortunately, the warning on my cigarette pack is in Khmer, so I don’t know whether I’m going to die from lung cancer or heart disease. One thing’s for sure: I am going to die one of these days, so it would be a little silly to stress about it prematurely. Better to get the most out of life while you’re alive than worry, I reckon. Besides, I read that smokers don’t succumb to Alzheimer’s disease as readily as non-smokers and I’m more afraid of that than I am of dying.

book and coffee in sihanoukville

I met Brian when he was in Sihanoukville and looked forward to reading his book. I could have bought a digital copy on Amazon, but I wanted a real book because I work online all week and enjoy taking a break from digital devices. Brian made a visa run to Phnom Penh and I was going to meet him there, but my pay was late and I couldn’t afford to make the trip. We arranged for a taxi to pick it up and I got it just in time for last weekend.

Brian crowdfunded his book, sneaking in the required amount half an hour before his deadline. Then he started traveling. He went to Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, Serbia, Indochina, Afghanistan and Iraq during his travels. He interviewed a cross-section of people, including well-connected people, journalists and average people on the streets. The book is remarkably objective. Where another writer might have started a rant, he simply shares information.

It’s not boring information, though, and he gives you a sense of the places he visits and the people he meets. There were times I felt like I was sitting next to him during his interviews or walking with him through the streets of the cities he visited. I kind of wish the book had been a little more boring because I only managed to make it last two weekends. Despite my efforts to pace myself, I inhaled the book. Since Q&A closed, it’s been hard to find good books. Casablanca is kind of hit and miss and I haven’t been into Mr. Heinz in a long time. I keep meaning to since it moved to a quieter location and now serves coffee, but I’m yet to try it.

Sadly, I finished the book today. The final chapter made tingles go up my spine. Brian quotes from Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant speech in The Great Dictator. Click the link to listen to the whole thing. I’ll just quote a few lines:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human being are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness — not by each other’s misery.

Sadly, War: The Afterparty proves that’s not always the case, but Brian’s travels revealed that most people do want to live in peace. I can’t recommend the book too highly. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read because Brian went to countries where America has intervened and found out what he needed to know from people who were affected by the interventions. He doesn’t cherry-pick his quotes, either. Some of the interviewees have different opinions than others.

sokha beach sihanoukville cambodia

So I closed the book, finished my second coffee and went to the beach. It was the perfect ending to another perfect weekend. I’ll go to Casablanca this evening. Hopefully I’ll find something to read, but I doubt it will be as good as the book I just finished.

Searching for Old Sihanoukville

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I went searching for old Sihanoukville today, the Sihanoukville I saw when I used to ride my bike. This time, I rode my motorbike to cover more ground, but I hadn’t been on some of the dirt roads and tracks I rode on for a couple of years. I remember those roads fondly because when I got off the main roads, I stumbled across villages that were much like the villages you seen outside of Cambodia’s bigger cities.

crane on ekareach st sihanoukville

My first stop was Escape on Serendipity Road for a cappuccino. Not long before I got to the Golden Lions, I stopped to take a photo of the crane in the picture above. I never saw cranes when I first moved here. There wasn’t enough construction going on to warrant them.

After my cappuccino, I went down to the beach road. I knew what I was going to see there. They’re widening the beach road in anticipation of increased traffic as big new developments take shape along the beach between Sokha and Independence beaches. See Sihanoukville: a metropolis in the making for some pics.

I turned up one of the small roads I used to ride my bike on and was a bit stunned. Even here building was taking place. Apartment buildings, mansions and smaller brick homes were going up everywhere. I decided not to take any photos because there were so many.

blue building sihanoukville cambodia

I went back out to the road that leads from Ekareach Street to Independence Beach. That used to be a fairly empty road and still is, but construction is going on there, too. This blue building stands out weirdly on an otherwise fairly empty stretch of road, but it’s only a matter of time before it has neighbours.

dseaview sihanoukville2Then I took a right on to a cement road that used to be a dirt road. Soon I was on familiar ground. I see what’s going on at Pearl City almost every day, but the latest development, D’Seaview, is right across the street from Pearl City. They’ve only started working on it recently, but according to the Phnom Penh Post, all 300 of Phase 1 of the project are “fully subscribed.”

The picture on the left is what it is going to look like. The picture below is what it looks like today. Just a few months ago, the site was in a ditch, but they’ve filled it in with land fill. After I took the photo, I had to stop for two big trucks that were racing along the formerly quiet road. To put things in perspective, eight years ago, the wide cement road was a dirt road that no one would travel on at night. When they first started working on Pearl City, an Australian man was murdered on the dirt road at about 2:00 a.m. when he was stumbling home drunk. Five Vietnamese workers killed him. They were drunk, too, and didn’t mean to kill him, but hit him a little too hard. Sopheak solved the mystery. It’s just one of the stories I cover in my book, which will be completed one of these days.

dseaview sihanoukville1After stopping for the trucks, I went on to a wide cement road that up until a couple of months ago was a very rough dirt road. I used to ride my bike down it all the time. It was part of my shortcut to the beach. I loved it because it was so undeveloped and quiet. Not so now. The once empty side of the road is quickly becoming filled with apartments.

apartments in sihanoukville cambodiaFinally, I emerged back on Ekareach Street. I’ve been watching this building go up for over a year now, but am still surprised by how imposing it is becoming. I thought they would stop at about the third floor, but it just keeps getting taller.

apartments on ekareach st sihanoukville cambodiaI went searching for old Sihanoukville, but it’s getting harder to find. Here and there you can still find the wonderful little family-run restaurants and stores build from timber and recycled materials, but they’re getting harder to find. I think they’re wonderful because they give poor Cambodians an opportunity to make a living without having to go to work for a Chinese or wealthy Cambodian company.

Old Sihanoukville vs New: Caught in the Middle

Some say progress is good, but many Cambodians are caught in the middle between the old Cambodia and the newly emerging Cambodia. They know how to survive in the old Cambodia, but don’t have enough of an education to make a decent living in the new Cambodia. Wages are going up, but not enough to cover the cost of living.

We’re sort of caught in the middle, too. We want to stay in Sihanoukville because the kids can get a good education here. We also want to move to a more rural location because we don’t want them to lose touch with their roots. As Sopheak said to me one day: “I want to teach them how to live without loi (money).” I can relate to that and know several Cambodians who fondly remember the past, when they didn’t have to work every day to survive.

Cambodia is confident right now. Foreign investment is pouring in and Sihanoukville is profiting from it. Like so many of the people, though, Sihanoukville is caught in the middle. It doesn’t really know how to cope with its growth and can’t really keep up with it. Interspersed between the new buildings are trash heaps and dirty roads. There’s not adequate sewerage or waste disposal beyond the basics. I suppose that will change in time, but right now, the city is in a period of transition.

Oddly enough, I still love this city. I love it because I never know what to expect next. I love it because it is incomplete. I love it because it’s not a spit-polished tourist centre. I love it because I still have to dodge chickens and cows on the road. I love it because after nine years, it feels like home. I’m just not sure for how long it’s going to feel that way, though. I never wanted to live in a metropolis.

The BIG Sihanoukville News

Update 13 March 2016: According to the Khmer Times and other publications, it looks like the Sihanoukville beach vendors have been given a reprieve. I’ll keep you posted, but for now at least, it doesn’t look like their establishments are going to be bulldozed.

The big Sihanoukville news is that all those lovely beachfront restaurants on Otres Beach are soon going to be a thing of the past. The story broke on the Cambodia Daily on February 17 and was quickly shared on Facebook. Some beach establishments confirmed it, with one saying they would stay until their business was bulldozed. His words reflected those of a business owner quoted in the Cambodia Daily: “I’ll tell you what my reaction to this is: It’s that I will stay until they f—king shove me off here.”


The buildings on the right are apparently the ones that have to go

The article says:

According to a statement dated February 12 and signed by Preah Sihanouk provincial governor Yon Min, businesses on O’Tres and those on the southern end of O’Chheuteal have until March 13 to move out, citing environmental concerns.

Those that don’t comply with the order will be bulldozed. I know of at least one business that has been anticipating this since they set up shop on the beach years ago. They made contingency plans, but many others will simply have to close. One thing I’m not clear about is what’s going to happen to the businesses on the other side of the road. I knew the ones on the beach were on borrowed time, but thought those on the opposite side of the road were safe. Some of them have invested a lot of money in their bungalows and guesthouses and have made Otres Sihanoukville’s most popular beach.

According to Sihanoukville governor Y Sok­leng as quoted in the article cited above: “Those buildings are close to the sea—the construction should be more than 100 meters away. In fact, when the tide is high, it often touches the buildings.” The guesthouses across the road are a lot less than 100 meters from the beach, but I was under the impression they were legally there and were subject only to height restrictions so that high rise construction could take place on the paved road that runs behind and parallels the dirt road shown on the photo above.

I took a walk to the end of Otres1 and took the two photos shown below. If they remove all the establishments, it’s sort of a before and after picture of what Otres Beach will look like in the near future.

Otres before and after

Before . . . and . . . After

I guess it will be kind of nice to have more beach, but I feel for the businesses that have to go. Most of them have done a great job, providing good food and beverages and keeping the beach clean. True, you have to pay for the privilege, but if you just want to enjoy the beach, Long Beach (on the right) is always there for you.

Some of my friends agree with me that removing the bars and restaurants along Ochheuteal Beach might not be such a bad idea. Many of them attract a clientele that Sihanoukville could do without. Otres seems to attract more tourists who just want to enjoy the beach. When I went down there to take these photographs, I saw three kite surfers, several people sailboarding and more than a few Hobie catamarans on the water. When I stopped in at a restaurant for a coffee and a snack, they were playing mellow music and guests were quietly enjoying the sun and the water.

So that’s the BIG Sihanoukville news. I’ll be sure to take a ride out there on or after March 13 to see what’s happened. I will be sorry to see some of my favourite weekend lunch spots go, but if there is one thing I’ve learned here, it’s that anything can happen and probably will.

Dao has moved and other Sihanoukville news

dao of life sihanoukville cambodia

I’ve mentioned Dao of Life more than once. They’re Sinanoukville’s one and only vegan restaurant. I’m not a vegan, but I love their food and love the restaurant. Shazia and the crew go beyond giving good service: they make you feel at home.

Dao’s only drawback has been its location. It wasn’t close to any tourist areas and those who didn’t have their own transportation had to take a tuk tuk to get there. In spite of that, the restaurant survived when so many businesses here fail. I’m both pleased and a little sad to announce that Dao of Life has moved to a new location just opposite Monkey Republic on Serendipity Road.

dao of life sihanoukville cambodiaI’m pleased because they are getting more much deserved business. They don’t need my advertising. When I dropped in on Monday, they were closed. Shazia said it was because they were overwhelmed by all the business they’ve been getting and needed to regroup and come up with an “action plan.” I’m sad because the old Dao felt like a second home.

dao of life new lounge

Other Sihanoukville News

A recent article in the Phnom Penh Post, Little Support for Coastal Master Plan, was, as expected, a one-sided put down of Sihanoukville’s Master Plan. “The plan would include a crackdown on “illegal” beach-front buildings, affecting anything within 50 meters of the sea, but it would also aim to ensure that Cambodia’s bays and beaches are protected and environmentally friendly”, the second paragraph began.

They put ‘illegal’ in quotes as if it was a disputable point, but didn’t mention that aside from removing the little cafes that illegally pop up occasionally, they have also ordered the removal of an illegal “port” (as reported by the PP Post) being built at Otres Beach by the Royal Group, so they’re not just picking on poor people.

Later, the article states: “Some residents here, especially foreigners, have expressed concern that the government’s true intentions remain unclear, and that their businesses, which have helped to develop the coast’s growing tourism industry, appear at risk.” Both foreign and Cambodian business owners frequently ignore zoning regulations. For that matter, so do home owners. They take a chance that a road won’t be widened or installed. When it is, they act as if the government is impinging on their rights. Of course, money still talks, so abuses do occur, but it’s not as one-sided as some publications would like us to believe.

There were some valid points made in the article, but the fact is that Sihanoukville is growing at an unprecedented rate and like any emerging metropolis, there will be winners and losers. When gentrification occurs in any city, anywhere in the world, it’s usually the poor who lose out. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it is and I get tired of Cambodia always being singled out as an exception. At least we’re not being forced to bathe in and drink poisoned water like the residents of Flint Michigan.

Back in June 2015, I wrote a blog titled Real Estate in Sihanoukville. I included a couple of pictures of new apartment blocks being built around town. They’re springing up everywhere, but so are multi-million dollar complexes. We also have our first new car dealership in town. Things are changing fast. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your point of view, but it’s a moot point. Better to watch the show than worry or complain.

My Magic Cambodian Natural Medicine

cambodian natural medicine

I do express my opinion in my Sihanoukville Journal, but rarely write about myself. Most of my readers don’t know that I’ve been moving at a snail’s pace since the 2012-13 dry season. I’d had some problems with my right knee before then, but a Chinese herbal remedy kept it under control. Then one day the last of the cartilage in my right knee wore out and I found myself standing in the middle of the road in pain. Until Sophie got me a Cambodian natural medicine, my health was going downhill fast from pain, lack of good sleep and almost no exercise. Now it looks like I’m on the road to recovery.

About six months after that painful moment, I had my knees scanned and it was clear that there was no cartilage in my right knee. There was nothing I could do about it, so I decided to live with it. It was bad enough then, but got worse about six months ago. It got so bad I spent an inordinate amount of time planning my movements to avoid having to walk any more than I had to. Ten metres was about all I could manage comfortably. More than that and I’d have to reconcile myself to every step being agonising.

At about the same time, Sophie had to go to Phnom Penh for an operation. Then she went to a small village in Svay Riengh to have a traditional healer help her with a much more serious illness. His treatment worked and I asked her if he had anything that could treat my knee. He didn’t have any in stock, but knew where to get them. This healer is in great demand, though, and he wasn’t able to get away to gather the plants he uses in his practice until he nearly exhausted all his supplies.

About two months ago, he set off to a number of parts of Cambodia to gather plants, going as far as Preah Vihear to forage for mine and some others. When he came back two weeks ago, Sophie brought my first batch home.

My Magic Cambodian Natural Medicine*

Here’s a photograph of the medicine Sophie brought back with her:

cambodian natural medicine

It looks like a bunch of twigs, leaves and bark and that’s exactly what it is. Every morning, Mama cooks up a tea and pours it into a thermos. I’m supposed to “drink it like water” throughout the day. I started drinking it on Monday the 23rd of November. I was going to take a video of myself hobbling along before I began the treatment, but unfortunately waited five days. By then I had already improved remarkably. Had I made the video before I started the treatment, you would have seen me wincing with every step and moving very slowly. I’m not going to share my video with you yet. I’ll wait until I have a second one, for comparison’s sake. I still limp in the video, but I’m moving at a regular walking pace and smiling throughout. I made the video on Friday the 27th, so was only up to my fifth day of the treatment.

don bosco hotel sihanoukville cambodia

I was even able to walk around and take photos of the kids less than a week after starting the treatment

Rather than bore you with every detail, I’ll just share a quick timeline:

  • 23 November: Start treatment (about six cups of tea per day)
  • 25 November: My feet feel very warm
  • 26 November: I can still see the veins in my right foot at noon. Before then, it swelled up by 10:00 a.m.
  • 27 November: It doesn’t hurt when I throw my leg over my motorbike seat.
  • 28 November: Friends comment that I’m not limping as badly and that I have more colour in my face.
  • 29 November: I go to the beach for a swim. That had formerly been a long process of walking from where I parked my motorbike to the steps at the edge of Independence Beach. I sat there for about 10 minutes to prepare for the agonising walk through the sand and into the water. This time, I walked straight in and when I got out after my swim, I felt refreshed and my leg wasn’t in agony. A Cambodian acquaintance remarks: “You look like tiger today!”
  • 29 November (afternoon): I take the kids to the Don Bosco Hotel for a swim in the pool and trampoline jumping. I wouldn’t have considered going out a second time after a morning swim before I started the treatment. This time, I not only walk relatively pain-free, but continue walking around taking pictures and ordering ice cream.
  • 01 December: While waiting for Kelly to get out of school, I notice my legs are trembling. My muscles had become so atrophied, they were having trouble coping with all the walking I’d been doing.
  • 03 December: Slight cramp in my right thigh. I think it’s because I’m using muscles I haven’t used in years.

I still have the cramp in my thigh, but will go for a massage tomorrow and see if it helps.

Sophie says her healer gave me a weak medicine because I’m old. I didn’t expect to see any improvement for at least a month, if then. I was astounded by how quickly the medicine worked. It’s supposed to be able to restore the cartilage, too, but that will probably take time. I’ve decided I got a little overexcited about the results, so am going to pace myself more. My leg muscles need to strengthen and I don’t want to overwork my knee.

This isn’t the first time so-called “alternative” medicine has worked for me or others I know. I’ve seen it do wonders in Bali, Australia and here in Cambodia. I cover most of the treatments I’ve used or observed in my book and when I’m satisfied with it, I’ll let you know how to get a copy.

*Disclaimer: I’m not a medical expert and am not pretending to offer a treatment. Obviously, you’re welcome to your own medical preferences. I’m just sharing this information about a Cambodian natural medicine based on my experience so far. I tried an anti-inflammatory pharmaceutical drug early on, but didn’t like the side effects. Then I switched to glucosamine, but gave up on it after about six weeks because it hadn’t helped at all, though I’m told it has worked for others. I was on the verge of going to Thailand for an operation when Sophie told me her traditional doctor had a treatment. It was a long wait, but worth it.

Signs of the times in Sihanoukville

I’ve read a barrage of stories about Sihanoukville recently. The one thing they all have in common is that they support my recent contention that Sihanoukville is a metropolis in the making. Unfortunately, some of my reading has been in print media and I can’t find the articles online, so you’ll just have to trust me.

autonomous port sihanoukville(mine)

It started when I read that Sihanoukville Airport was being upgraded to accommodate international flights. This was always the plan, but it’s been a long-range project. Now the funds have been allocated and work can begin, apparently.

In other transportation news, I read an announcement that an expressway is going to be built to link Sihanoukville with Phnom Penh. It’s funded by the Chinese government and is expected to be completed by 2020, according to the Bangkok Post. It takes about 4 1/2 hours to drive to Sihanoukville on the dreaded Route 4. Driving time is expected to be cut to 3 hours on the new expressway. Since it will have lanes, there will probably be fewer accidents, too.

Although it’s not important to the casual visitor, the recent agreement with China to start shipping directly to Sihanoukville Autonomous Port is huge news for Cambodia. It could turn the port into a major port. Two of China’s biggest ocean freight companies signed the deal. It must be annoying to Vietnam, because now Chinese container ships won’t have to stop in Vietnam first.  I got this info from MarineLink.com.

dawn princessAlthough not quite as dramatic as the other articles I’ve read, it’s noteworthy the largest ocean liner ever visited our shores recently. When I first came here, ocean liner’s of any size were a novelty and we used to ride down to the park near the port to look at them. Then they became so commonplace, we didn’t bother any more. The Dawn Princess was big enough to draw a crowd, though, according to the Khmer Times.

And finally, I read in this morning’s print edition of the Khmer Times that construction of the mega-resort on Koh Rong has begun. As always happens with big construction projects anywhere in the world, the locals are the biggest losers. They have organised in an effort to keep the development from encroaching on their land and preventing them from growing the crops that are their livelihood. There’s also some concern that the developers will not honour their commitment to preserving the jungles on the island.

As is true everywhere, growth is a mixed blessing/curse. While growth means jobs, it also mean pollution, overcrowded conditions and a skewed distribution of wealth, power and influence. I can’t turn back the clock, but we are talking about selling our house and moving to a more rural area within shouting distance of Sihanoukville. It’s kind of a compromise. Sophie would rather live in the country, but she knows the kids need access to education and I’m too much of a wimp to handle life in rural Cambodia and need my internet connection and cappuccinos to make a living. It’s fascinating living here, though. You never know what to expect.

Two sides to the 2015 Cambodia NGO law debate

smiling faces at an NGO

The acronym NGO is almost synonymous with sainthood in the minds of many people. Non-Governmental Organisations are there to help people, right? They stay out of politics and selflessly do whatever they’re set up to do, whether it’s feeding the poor; giving children a better education; or providing healthcare. Some NGOs do those things. Others do them, but with an agenda that might not be in the interests of the culture they’re trying to help. Still others meddle in politics. At their worst, NGOs can be profit-driven organisations that do little or no good with the donations they receive.

smiling faces at an NGO

There’s a light and dark side to NGOs

Google “2015 Cambodia NGO law” and you’ll find a long list of articles critical of the Cambodian government passing a law placing restrictions on NGOs. Cambodia’s Senate Passes NGO Law, Despite Ongoing Protests, says Radio Free Asia, as if other countries don’t pass laws or even go to war “despite ongoing protests.” Remember the millions who protested against America’s invasion of Iraq? I was one of them and saw how many were at the Sydney protest. Arrests made at Cambodia NGO law protest, tells the Bangkok Post. Of course, arrests are never made at protests in Thailand, are they? As it turns out, a whopping six people were arrested out of “dozens” at the rally.

The one place I’ve read the other side of the 2015 Cambodia NGO law debate is in the Khmer Times. “Every NGO has its own agenda that is not necessarily identical to all domestic interests of the peoples and states that are targets of the organization’s activities. Those organizations are not the angels seen on television or read about in the media”, writes T. Mohan in the opening paragraph of an opinion piece. The writer argues that NGOs have become far too powerful and there is good reason to ask (quote):

  • How many NGOs actually exist?
  • What are their agendas?
  • Who runs these groups?
  • Who funds them?

Mohan also points out the LICADHO, one of the most influential NGOs in Cambodia, lambasts “the country, its leaders, and its judicial system. They overtly call on people to protest, or covertly encourage people to protest, demonstrate, and carry out acts with impunity. All the while, they like to highlight cases of impunity  in the country and to make loud calls for ending impunity.”

On a small scale, I got involved in an NGO years ago. I discovered how greedy NGOs can be; how they can consciously or unconsciously try to influence the people they are meant to help; and how many of them actively compete with one another to get a bigger slice of the donor pie. I’ve run across NGOs that tell of all the good things they do for the people and add converting them to Christianity to their list of charitable activities. An NGO tried that on Sophie when she was a girl. When they said, “Jesus is good. Buddha is bad,” she flew into a rage and left. Can’t say I blame her.

NGOs love to set up shop in Cambodia. According to an article in The Diplomat, there are 3500 of them. Although as many as half are inactive, there is still an NGO for every 10,000 Cambodian citizens. The article was written in 2013, two years before the passing of the current law. It points out the lack of structure and regulation and says that one of the consequences is “the emergence of for-profit NGOs.” The article also points out that proud “announcements of aid allocated through NGOs can be illusory, as only a portion of it actually reaches beneficiaries” because of the high running costs. The gist of the article was that NGOs in Cambodia need to be regulated. Now that they are, NGOs are crying foul and claiming Hun Sen did it to silence criticism of his government. Isn’t that a not-so-tacit admission that some NGOs are political in nature? Maybe it’s time NGOs and their supporters take a hard look at their own agendas. They aren’t always as warm and fuzzy as they’d like us to believe.

US Embassy Phnom Penh warns about the mean streets of Cambodia

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“When I ride my motorbike, I always wear my six-guns on my hips and carry a knife between my teeth. My steely eyes strike fear into the hearts of would-be attackers.”

I wrote this in response to an absurd story in the Phnom Penh Post. Crime Level ‘Critical’ in Cambodia: US was the title. After listing incidents that warranted this “Critical” rating, these sage words of advice were offered:

U.S. officials were also told that they should avoid “dimly lit areas,” “socialize at reputable restaurants and bars” and avoid food that might contain illicit drugs.

“Embassy employees are prohibited from ordering food items from local restaurants that contain marijuana or other illicit ingredients, which are usually marketed under the term ‘happy,’” the report says.

Actually, when I ride my motorbike, I put on my helmet as required by law and obey the traffic laws except when it might be dangerous, like at stoplights no one stops at unless the police are out. I used to stop at those, but was told I might get rear-ended, so I use discretion. If there’s cross-traffic, I stop. If not, I slow down, but run the red light.

The mean streets of Cambodia aren’t nearly as mean as the US embassy Phnom Penh would like us to believe. I could more truthfully write an article, Crime Level ‘Critical’ in the U.S. if the statistics on disastercenter.com are correct. Of course, facts don’t matter to the spin doctors, but I like to have at least a few to back me up, so here they are. The U.S. had a population of 316 million in 2013. There were a total of nearly 9.8 million crimes in that same year. Of these:

  • 1,163,658 were violent crimes
  • 14,196 murders were committed
  • There were 79,770 cases of  “Forcible Rape” (is there any other kind?)
  • Larceny/theft accounted for over 6 million crimes
  • There were over 1.9 million burglaries

Sihanoukville and probably Phnom Penh would beat any city in the U.S. when it comes to statistics about the numbers of people who run red lights, but that’s about it.

Cambodia-bashing by the U.S. government and media becomes so wearisome. I’m not sure why they do it. In many cases, I think they really do believe this is a scary country. To be sure, bad stuff happens, but singling Cambodia out doesn’t make sense.

Let’s take pickpockets, for example. According to EscapeHere, Barcelona tops the list of the world’s 10 worst cities for pickpocketing. Runners-up are:

  • Prague
  • Rome
  • Madrid
  • Paris
  • Buenos Aires
  • Florence
  • Amsterdam
  • Hanoi
  • Athens

Not one city in Cambodia made the top 10, but the U.S. Embassy warns about the rise of “snatch and grab” thefts in Phnom Penh as if the streets were in a state of violent anarchy.

Another reason why the embassy may have called the situation in Phnom Penh “critical,” is because they “earn an annual 25 percent ‘hardship’ compensation for working in Cambodia”. I suppose if I worked at the embassy, I might be tempted to say anything to ensure I kept getting an extra 25% in my pay packet. And hey! If I could make it sound like one of the most dangerous countries in the world, we could get a 35% raise! Why worry about the truth when money is involved?

The Cambodia Success Story

Nothing like jumping straight into a subject that’s sure to be controversial, so I’ll start by admitting that my pro-Cambodia stance is partly in response to all the negative press this country gets. There’s always another side of the story and a couple of articles I read recently tell that story. Yes, there is a Cambodia success story. You just have to see it in its historical context.

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“When a developing country loses a quarter of its population to genocide as Cambodia did, it’s hard to make a comeback. But with the help of the international community, Cambodia is on track to doing just that.” So begins a recent article in the Epoch Times. It goes on to quote the World Bank’s Cambodia manager Allasane Sow, who points out that the country’s goal was to reduce poverty by half by 2015. With international help, the country achieved that goal by 2011.

The article goes on to acknowledge that Cambodia has relied on international aid, but even there, it is taking steps to reduce its reliance on handouts. To make the point, author Valentin Schmid quotes secretary of state of the ministry of the environment, Thuk Kroeun Vutha: “We achieve robust economic growth of an average of 6.7 percent per year. The population is quite young. We opened up our economy.” He goes on to say that education is the key to Cambodia’s future.

Many outsiders believe Cambodia is not doing enough to foster education. The facts show otherwise. “At least when it comes to primary schools, Cambodia is well ahead of its East Asian neighbors with the highest enrollment rate in the region, according to the World Bank.”

The Epoch Times article didn’t shy away from addressing the problems Cambodia faces, but it was refreshing to read something that addressed the enormous progress the country has made.

Phnom Penh a Luxury Residential Hotspot?

I get a lot of assignments about the high-end real estate market in places like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. While doing research the other day, I stumbled across an article in Asia Property Report, Why Phnom Penh is one of Asia’s best bets for luxury residential investments. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, so I’ll just quote  senior associate at the Cambodian subsidiary of Japan-based financial services company SBI Royal Securities Leng Vandy, whose words came at the conclusion of the article:  “Demand for condominiums by locals and foreigners is likely to continue to grow. The residential property market in Cambodia is still in its infancy and the market’s lack of maturity offers unique opportunities for investors.”

My Opinion

Personally, I think both major parties in Cambodia are making the mistake of following the Western capitalistic model. The world is on the verge of being swallowed up by corporations whose only goal is profit. Here, as in developed countries, the gap between rich and poor is growing and people are less able to live outside the system. I’ve met Cambodians who agree with me on this and fondly remember living and working in small, self-sufficient villages.

In my opinion, capitalism has had its day. One of the few world leaders I admire is outgoing president Jose Mujica of Uruguay, so I’ll close with this:

Jose Mujica quote