Sihanoukville Journal versus Expat Journal

When I started my Sihanoukville Journal, everything about Sihanoukville was interesting to me. I’ve been here almost ten years now and it just feels like home to me now. That’s one reason why I’m not updating my journal as much as I used to.

I write a lot of opinion pieces here, but steer away from stories that aren’t related to Cambodia or Sihanoukville. Those stories I publish on my other blog, Expat Journal. As you can see, the subtitle is, “life from a different perspective.” That has a nicer ring to it than “life from a weirder perspective,” but may not be quite as accurate.

Why is “life from a weirder perspective” more accurate? Well, it may not be, but my perspective on life is weird when compared to the perspective of a lot of people. I don’t believe happiness can be found in things, for example, and I think happiness is a choice. I’m a little obsessed with that subject because I see so many unhappy and angry expats here in Sihanoukville. I used to think it was limited to Sihanoukville, but I’ve met expats who have lived in places like Thailand, Vietnam, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica who say the same thing. It’s the one thing that bothers them about expat living.

Sihanoukville is growing faster than I would like, but I have a choice: I can let it ruin my day or I can live with it and find reasons to enjoy life here. There are plenty of reasons I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Life is a lot cheaper here
  • I can afford to go out for dinner every night
  • I can go out for a cappuccino every day
  • The water is warm
  • Transportation is cheap on my motorbike
  • Not all expats are unhappy here

Sihanoukville Journal versus Expat Journal

Now, back to my Expat Journal. I don’t get many visitors, but two articles seem to be the most popular. I wrote The Crazy Wisdom of TDA Lingo so long ago I’ve forgotten when. That one gets a lot of traffic because not many people write about him and it ranks near the top in search engines. The other one that gets a lot of traffic is The Best Brainwave Entrainment Products.

I rarely do brainwave entrainment any more, but I used to and found it worked for a lot of things. I could use it to calm me down or to speed me up. I wrote the article for two reasons. The main reason was because I let myself get suckered into buying an expensive product when I first discovered brainwave entrainment. When I found Transparent Corporation, I discovered what a sucker I was. Their product is cheap and gives you more options. The other program was kind of cultish and you had to pay a high price for their CDs. The other reason I wrote it is because I get a commission on the sale of their products.

Those two get the most traffic, but others are starting to get read as well. Someone from Athens, Greece read Meditation versus Amygdala Tickling about four hours ago. Here’s a quote from that post:

The experience I had on my way to work was exactly like a deep meditation, but I remained functional and it didn’t take half an hour or more of meditation in an ideal environment to achieve it. It happened instantaneously and remained even after I went to work in a boat factory where working conditions were so bad, even “work for the dole” counselors told their clients they didn’t have to apply for a job there to keep getting unemployment benefits.

The little known technique works wonders for me and is one reason why I am able to feel happy most of the time. I don’t meditate much any more, but I can do amygdala tickling anywhere and it always works to some degree. Of course, I get angry and a little depressed from time to time, but I don’t let negative emotions rule my life and I have that simple technique to thank for that.

I don’t think my Expat Journal will appeal to everyone who reads my Sihanoukville Journal, but I couldn’t think of anything else to write about today and it’s been awhile since I posted here. I’m not abandoning this blog, but I’m more interested in the other one right now. Next time, I promise I’ll write about something here in Sihanoukville. I just have to remember not to let the kids take my phone. I need it to take photos when I’m out and about.

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.

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.

More about Cambodian Traditional Medicine

cambodian natural medicine practitioner

cambodian natural medicine(1)I am so grateful to the man who commented on my previous post about Cambodian traditional medicine, My Magic Cambodian Natural Medicine. John Lowrie was formerly connected with an NGO that sought to preserve the culture of the people of Mondulkiri. His blog, A Northumbrian Abroad, deserves a larger following and the book he sent me, Traditional Therapeutic Knowledge of the Bunong People in North-eastern Cambodia, is brilliant.

What little I knew about Cambodian traditional medicine until I picked up the book the other day I learned from Sopheak. The first time she made a brew for me was about eight years ago, when I had a horrible bout of diarrhea. She ran out of the house and came back half an hour later with a tea she had made from some tree bark. I was in agony as I waited for it to cool and wasn’t sure it would help. The first sip made the cramping in my stomach stop instantly and by the time I finished a cup, I was fine.

The book John sent me was written by an NGO, Nomad RSI. The NGO has been working in Mondulkiri since 1997. The preface of the book starts by listing the academic credentials of the book’s creators, but goes on to emphasize the respect they have for indigenous healers. While they don’t show disrespect for our Western biomedicine, they point out some of the differences between the two modalities and make an attempt to bridge the gap between them. In their introductory remarks, Calum Blaikie and Laurent Pordie write:

There are a great many ‘traditional’ health practices which essentially deal with the physiological and biological, just as there is much in the vast body of knowledge-practice that constitutes contemporary biomedicine which reflects particular cultural orientations, epistemological frameworks, socio-economic and political systems.

The book goes on to give snapshots of a variety of healers. Some of them learned from others, while a few learned from spirits. At least one, Chuch Den, “had a dream where a spirit had called her to become a midwife. This was a sign for her and if the spirit had not appeared in her dreams she would not be practising today.” Chuch Den learned midwifery from her mother, but another healer, Deuy Kam, learned directly from spirits and says he “will transmit his knowledge through his spirit after he dies, as his mother had done with him.” Still others were forced to learn traditional medicine by the Khmer Rouge, one of whose aims was to purge Kampuchea of Western influences. Too bad they did it the wrong way. No good comes from force, as any true healer can tell you.

Cambodian natural medicine healer

My Experiences with Cambodian Traditional Medicine and ‘Magic’

We Westerners like to believe in reason. I began to see the limits of reason decades ago when I met the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met. Her intuition was undeniable and I have had experiences with her that defy logic. On the flip side, I’ve run into my share of charlatans and people who think they’re intuitive, but aren’t. Of course, the same can be said for anything. If there’s a buck to be made, some people think nothing of lying to make it and you meet self proclaimed experts (who aren’t) in every field. I think you need to keep an open mind, but a critical mind helps, too.

I’ve seen enough amazing things in my life that I was not incredulous when my wife told me a story about how a spirit appeared before her and taught her how to heal a wound she received when she was living in the jungle alone as a little girl. She jumped out of a tree and sliced her Achilles tendon on a shard of metal. Blood was gushing out. A man appeared before her and told her to mix spider web with mud and wrap it around her heal with a certain leaf. She did as instructed and the bleeding stopped. He told her to change the dressing every day and then vanished. The wound healed. I write about this and other experiences more extensively in my book. I won’t blame readers for not believing some of my stories, but most of them, as incredible as they sound, happened to me and I have to believe them. A few stories are second-hand, but I believe them because the people who told me the stories had nothing to gain and are generally as diffident as I am about sharing “miraculous” stories that might sound crazy to the average Western reader.

As Hamlet said to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Our Western “philosophy” is one of reason. Intuition is such a rare occurrence in our reason-based society, most of us don’t believe it exists. Some who do believe in intuition consider it an extraordinary spiritual power. Personally, I think it’s a skill we’ve forgotten how to use. That’s what a psychic told us at a small gathering in Australia. He proved it to us when he taught us how to tap into it and let us experiment on each other. I’m sure it worked, but I’ve rarely been able to tap into it since. I once told a friend here in Cambodia about the experience. I thought he wouldn’t believe me, but he told me about his ex-wife, who often had psychic experiences. One day his car was stolen and she saw the exact spot where the thieves left the car when they stripped it. He is as practical a person as any, yet his ex-wife made him see that there really are abilities beyond the five senses and reason.

I first heard about the healer who gave me the natural medicine I’m using on my knee about five or six years ago. A relative of Sopheak’s was dying from cancer. The local hospital sent her to our house and I saw firsthand how close to death she was. The hospital recommended sending her to the Russian hospital in Phnom Penh first, to have tests to confirm she was dying from breast cancer. We did as instructed. The hospital confirmed it and said it was too late for any conventional treatment, so we sent back to her home village to die. Three months later, she returned to Sihanoukville, looking fit and happy. Unfortunately, she didn’t follow the healer’s advice and take the medicine for six months. The cancer returned and she died, but I’d seen his medicine work with my own eyes.

Years later, a wealthy man from Vietnam tried to cross the border, but was not allowed to enter Cambodia because the border officials were afraid he would die here. He sent his driver to fetch the healer. The man recovered and now the healer has patients coming from as far away as Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. He apparently charges on a sliding scale: wealthier patients pay much more than poorer patients pay. I hope to finally meet the healer soon. I’ll report on what happens when I do.

 

#holistichealth

#healing

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.

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.

Valentine’s Day in Sihanoukville 2015

I wasn’t going to write about Valentine’s Day in Sihanoukville this year because I wrote about it last year, but a couple of things changed my mind. First the good news.

The Valentine baby

The Valentine baby

Valentine’s Day is always an expensive day here. It goes way beyond buying flowers for your “valentine.” As Sophie says, “This one day for love.” Therefore, everybody you feel affection for gets at least a token gift. That means family and friends. Added up it came to a couple of hundred dollars this year. Part of that went towards buying stuff for a newborn baby that was born on the 13th, but Sophie also convinced me to buy the mother a bouquet of flowers. This was not awkward because the flowers are a token of affection, not necessarily romantic love.

I thought maybe it was a trend just in our family, but discovered otherwise last night when I went to King Chicken to get takeaway (Sophie went to a wedding, so the traditional dinner out didn’t happen). King Chicken was packed beyond capacity. It’s a family restaurant complete with indoor playground and Cambodian families were going out for Valentine’s Day in droves.

After I came home, Sophie’s little brother announced he was throwing a little Valentine’s Day party for the family and asked me to join in. He had bought a cake for the kids and beer for the adults. We had a falling out with him a few weeks ago and he took advantage of the opportunity to apologise to Mama, Papa and me for his bad behaviour.

This morning I visited a friend and he had a similar story to tell. Everybody in his family exchanged gifts. My friend scored a new shirt from one of the young men in the family.

Now for the bad news

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I have a big problem with the Western media. They’re always picking on other countries and particularly like to point out problems in Cambodia. True to form, on 10 February the Washington Post posted an article, The country where Valentine’s Day is the most dangerous day of the year. Fair enough, they quoted government ministers, but the message was clear. Young Cambodian men think of Valentine’s Day as a day of rape and sexual coercion.

The conclusion drawn by the article’s author was completely skewed because it didn’t cover the upside of Valentine’s Day in Cambodia. It’s not the most dangerous day of the year for 9.5 out of 10 Cambodians who celebrate the day.

The Valentine cake

The Valentine cake

I also question the statistics. After President Obama announced that an “estimated one in five women has been sexually assaulted during her college years,” the anti-Obama media was quick to find loopholes in the argument. Not so in the article about rape in Cambodia. It happens, sure, as it happens everywhere, and it’s never to be condoned, but the American media is not a Cambodian moral authority and can’t really take the moral high ground on this or any other topic. Rather than pick on others to make Americans feel better about themselves, the U.S. media should be focusing on cleaning up its own house. But that’s not what the MSM does.

No, Valentine’s Day is not the most dangerous day of the year in Cambodia. Like so many holidays Cambodia has borrowed from other countries, they put their own spin on it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a day to celebrate love in all its forms in the West like they do in Cambodia?

valentine baby 2

Reflections on Hun Sen’s 30 Years in Power

hun sen

Back in 1985, I was preparing to move to Australia. The Vietnam War was behind us and I was oblivious to what was happening in Cambodia. I’m not proud of it, but I was still living in the American information bubble and Hun Sen’s rise to power wasn’t in the mainstream news.

hun senHere I am in Cambodia 30 years later and I seem to be one of Hun Sen’s few supporters. I may kick myself for it later, but right now, I still can’t see a viable alternative to his leadership. Even ABC News indirectly admitted that Cambodia’s Wily Leader deserved some praise, quoting Sebastian Strangio, author of a recent biography, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, who said,  “Hun Sen is one of the cleverest politicians Asia has ever seen.”

2015 marks 30 years of power for Hun Sen. If for no other reason than that, he’s been in the news a lot lately. Most of the press makes much of the fact that Hun Sen was originally a member of the Khmer Rouge, but ignores why. Like many other Cambodians, he joined the organisation because it was fighting against a pro-American puppet government that was doing nothing for poor Cambodians. He eventually fled to Vietnam and only returned after the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge out after the U.N. failed miserably.

Hun Sen’s detractors also like to say he’s Vietnam’s puppet leader, which is a ridiculous accusation. When he came to power, he chose to set up a free market economy rather than follow Vietnam’s Communist model. Yes, he has shown favouritism and is probably corrupt, but show me a politician who isn’t. America certainly can’t take the moral high ground in that department, so I can’t get very excited when VOA brings up the subject.

Hun Sen’s critics also cite the deepening divide between rich and poor in Cambodia. They overlook the fact that Cambodia has a growing middle class and that under Hun Sen, poverty has been reduced from 50% to 20% according to the World Bank. While they complain about land grabs, they ignore all the social land grants the Hun Sen “regime” is responsible for. Right here in my neighbourhood I know several people who own their land simply by virtue of having lived on it for a number of years. Most of them have larger parcels of land than I and after subdividing, some of them are very well off.

Sam Rainsy

Sam Rainsy

Of course, the loudest complaints come from the main opposition party, the CNRP. Take a closer look at them and you’ll discover some of the old timers are not only ex-Khmer Rouge, but secretly still support Khmer Rouge ideals. Others are dual citizens, Khmericans, who are amongst the handful of people in the world today who still support George Bush and think the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya “liberated” those countries. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want someone that ignorant running the country.

Hun Sen is far from perfect. He said so himself in a speech at the opening of Cambodia’s longest bridge. “Indeed I have made some mistakes,” he said, “but please balance the right and wrong ones.” That, unfortunately, is what most of the media fails to do. They hammer away at his “strongman” image, but fail to recognise the inescapable fact that Cambodia owes its peace, stability and growing prosperity to him.

Yes, it may be time for a change, but is Sam Rainsy or Kem Sokha the change Cambodia needs? The leaders of the opposition come across as populists, but are elitists in disguise. They spend more time in America, Europe or fancy hotels in Thailand than they spend in Cambodia. While they lived comfortably overseas, Hun Sen, who comes from a poor background, stuck it out here and played a huge part in ridding Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge. Now that everything is safe, the CNRP beats its chest and proclaims itself Cambodia’s saviour (Cambodian National Rescue Party). Who are they rescuing Cambodia from? Are they planning on becoming another puppet regime, serving America’s interests first? If they love their country so much, why do they oppose Hun Sen’s insistence that they give up their American citizenship if they want to run for office?

I have nothing against criticism of Hun Sen. I’m sure many of the allegations made against him are true. I’d love to see a government that focused on the needs and rights of the people more than the greed of the wealthy elite. I don’t see that anywhere in the world right now, except perhaps in Bolivia, where a populist leader, Eva Morales, is in power, or Uruguay, where Jose Mujica drives around in a broken down car and gives away the presidential mansion. When a leader like that steps forward in Cambodia, I’ll jump for joy. Until then, in my opinion, Cambodia is in better hands under Hun Sen than any opposition leader I know of.

A few tips for backpackers visiting Sihanoukville

I’ve taken a hiatus from writing here because I’ve been flat-out with pre-Christmas freelance writing work. I have been thinking about what to write next, though. Would it be about the out of the way places to go to the beach, like the wonderful Sunset Lounge at the end of Ochheuteal? Would it be about Otres village, where I went yesterday because I didn’t want to go to the beach? I love to promote Sihanoukville, so was tempted, but a few things happened that made me decide to write these few tips for backpackers visiting Sihanoukville.

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Barang vs. the Sihanoukville Police

The other day I was trying to enjoy a cappuccino at Escape, but an American man at another table was talking so loudly, it was as if he was sitting across the table from me. He was giving his Cambodian “friend” a lecture about the Sihanoukville police. “The police in Thailand are all fit, wear nice uniforms and carry guns,” he said. “They get respect. The police here just seem to want to collect traffic fines from barang. They should set an example to Cambodians and teach them about traffic laws. They have to learn to stop at the stop lights whether police are there or not.”

naked barang arrested in sihanoukville

He apparently wasn’t aware that he was contradicting himself. Cambodians stop at stoplights when the police are there because the police DO stop them. They may stop a greater percentage (per capita) of barang, but that’s because they can be reasonably sure they don’t carry driver’s licenses. It’s a complete myth that they collect fines from barang and divvy up the take. I got pulled over the other day by a policeman I know. “Sorry. I know you not do something wrong,” he told me. “I just want show your license to barang.” Two sour-faced Westerners were incensed that they had been pulled over. He was hoping my license would help them see they weren’t being picked on just because they were barang.

Sunset Lounge, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Sunset Lounge

Okay, back to Escape. When I went to the counter to pay my bill, the girl in front of me asked the guy behind the counter if he knew of any place where they would rent her and her boyfriend a motorbike without a passport. They were over for the day from Koh Rong and forgot to bring their passports with them. He pretended not to understand their question, so I politely told her it might be a good idea not to even if she could find a place that would give her a motorbike without a passport (doubtful). I went on to tell her the police were checking for Cambodian driver’s licenses and not having a passport might make things even more awkward if they got pulled over.

Later that day, I came out to Ekareach Street and a barang woman on a motorbike did a rather dangerous u turn in front of me. She had started to turn the corner to avoid the police because she wasn’t wearing a helmet, but then saw they stationed another policeman on the small road for just that purpose. She was kind of frozen there, not knowing what to do. As I turned the corner, she was looking over her shoulder, so I think she turned around to find another side road.

As they say in the States: “three strikes you’re out.” After those three incidents, I knew what I had to write about.

On Respecting Cambodians

The guy at Escape was the most annoying to me because he was complaining to a Cambodian. The poor guy smiled weakly as he jabbered away, but was obviously uncomfortable. Tell me, would you appreciate it if a tourist came to your country and started telling you how it should be run? Worse, Cambodians really don’t like being compared unfavourably to Thais. Can you blame them?

On top of that, not everybody thinks guns are the answer to everything the way Americans do. I like the fact that traffic police don’t carry guns. Some police do, but only when they get called out for dangerous assignments. Speaking of which, yes, the police do their job, contrary to rumour. If they don’t seem willing to help you, it’s usually because you’re being rude or they don’t understand you. Translators are available. Stay calm, call a translator (you’ll have to pay for their time), and politely fill out a report.

Some backpackers and expats will tell you just to keep going when the traffic police try to stop you. You might get away with it, but they will remember you and you just make us all look bad. And think about what would happen if you did that in your home country. You’d end up in jail if you didn’t get shot and killed first.

Cambodia is just starting to get its act together and is doing a pretty good job of it, too. Sihanoukville has been growing faster than the infrastructure can keep up with. There are plans in the works to clean up the rubbish, get better sewerage, make the airport a truly international airport and a lot more, but it takes time, money and planning.

If you like Thailand better, just go there. There’s nothing more boring than to listen to people rave about Thailand. For the record, while Cambodia was being bombed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, Thailand’s brothels were servicing American soldiers and American dollars were pouring in. It has a head start on Cambodia, but it’s not exactly a shining example of democracy in SE Asia. Remember the coup? Scratch just below the surface and the “land of smiles” isn’t really all that happy. Cambodians are for the most part friendly, down to earth people. That’s one of the things I love about it here. The country doesn’t put on airs.

Okay, that’s my rant for 2014. Have a great Christmas and New Year.