Published Another Book: The Girl with Tiger’s Eyes

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Serendipity Road is about 97,000 words long. Originally, it was going to be a biography, but it turned into a biography/memoir. The Girl with Tiger’s Eyes is closer to what I originally wanted to write. It’s only 18,000 words and didn’t take me long to write. I formatted it and made the cover myself, so I’m giving it away for FREE on Smashwords. You can pick up a copy HERE.

I loved writing Serendipity Road and even enjoyed the editing process. My friend Penny Sisto recommended writing another book and she suggested the title. If you’ve read Serendipity Road, you’ll know what a prominent part Penny has played in my life. She’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met and is a fountain of wisdom, kindness and generosity. I sent her a copy of my new book. This is what she had to say about it:

Dear Rob, Well done! It is a smooth and a delightful read.
It is concise..It reads like a joyful poem, light, musical, lyrical, fascinating ..
I meant to read a passage or two and in a flash had finished it..SPLENDID!
I was a little stunned by her response. I wrote the first 6000 words of The Girl with Tiger’s Eyes in one sitting and added more as I found time. Unlike my other book, which took a couple of years to complete, I finished this one in under a month.
If you’re interested, you can grab a free copy of my new book. If you like it, you will find much more in Serendipity Road. It’s only $2.99 and I’ve received positive feedback about that book, too. Most recently, someone said they downloaded it: “It was late, but I couldn’t put it down,” they said. “I think you’ve got a winner on your hands.” Here is the link again: The Girl with Tiger’s Eyes

Looking back at 10 years in Cambodia

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I created a Facebook page for my book, Serendipity Road. I’m still waiting for it to be formatted. Once that’s done, I’ll be ready to publish. My book is not illustrated, so I’ve included photos and quotes from the book on my Facebook page. I’d like for readers to visit my page, so I’ve included a few photos from the past 10 years in Cambodia here in hopes you’ll visit my page and look at more.

charcoal oven in CambodiaThis is a charcoal oven similar to the one Sopheak’s family built when they lived on the edge of the jungle near Virh Riengh. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“All it took to eat well at the edge of the jungle was a few hours of foraging, hunting and gardening. Anything they lacked, like rice, they bought with the proceeds of the charcoal they made in their charcoal oven and the occasional turtle they sold in the market.”

When we went to Svay Riengh, we stayed in this house. Svay Riengh is near the Vietnam border. Sopheak’s family lived in the rice fields when she was young and she still considers Svay Riengh home. I can’t say I blame her. Life is slower, quieter and easier there than in Sihanoukville. She’s considering selling our house in Sihanoukville and buying land closer to the main city in Svay Riengh. Either that or we’ll move to Klang Leu so the kids can continue going to school in Sihanoukville.

Svay Riengh, CambodiaWhen I first met Sopheak, we travelled a lot. On our trip to Ratanakiri, we stopped off in Kratie to view the Irrawaddie dolphins. On the way back, Sopheak took the helm for a photo op. When we were viewing the dolphins, I tried zooming in, but they were too quick. I stopped zooming in and cropped photos of the dolphins. That worked much better. They were pretty magical and I’m glad I had the chance to see them.

Kratie, CambodiaThe next photo is of our first housekeeper, Sokha. She was a sweet girl, but on more than three occasions, she became possessed by the spirits of dead relatives. Her mother and baby sister were benign, but her older sister had been raped and murdered. She was angry and didn’t want to leave Sokha’s body. Believe it or not, an exorcism did the trick and Sokha has been fine since. I wrote about Sokha way back in 2011. Here’s the link to Surrealistic Pillow.

Sokha at the beach, somewhere in CambodiaHere’s a short excerpt from the chapter about Sokha. The chapter title is Surrealistic Pillow. It’s from an old Jefferson Airplane song, but also refers to the pillow Sokha laid down on between visits from her mother and baby sister.

“Sokha! You put salt in my coffee instead of sugar!” I laughed. I had to shout, because she had gone back down the hall and into the kitchen. Not hearing a reply, I walked down the hall. When I got about halfway to the kitchen, Sokha stepped into the hallway brandishing a big knife.

“Now Sokha,” I said gently, trying to calm her down. Then I felt a whack across the back of my head.

“You skoot?” Sopheak shouted. “This one not Sokha! This one want kill you!” Then she pulled me back out of the hallway as she called out for Longh.

When Sopheak was a little girl, she wandered into the jungle with a phnong family. She left the family, but wandered for nearly two years, living on small potatoes and other foraged food in the jungle. Her only companion was her pet squirrel, Yuri. It’s an amazing story and I cover it in the first chapter and later in the book, when Sopheak told me about her time in the jungle when we were building our house in 2007. When we went to Ratanakiri, we went to a showcase phnong village and Sopheak met this woman. Contrary to what some people think, phnong is not the name of a tribe. It means “savage” in Khmer and unfortunately refers to all indigenous Cambodians.

Ratanakiri, CambodiaHere’s a brief excerpt from the book. Sopheak was remarkably brave for such a young girl.

Fear and loneliness plagued her in equal measures during her first weeks alone in the jungle. She kept fear at bay by saying “Maybe I sleep, not wake up” before she slept at night. Every morning she said, “Maybe I die today, but not dead yet” and found the courage to keep going.

Finally, here’s my new book cover. The photo was taken in 1972 when I was in India. Neem Karoli Baba is at the bottom of the photo. He’s best known as Ram Dass’ and Krishna Das’ guru. I’m the guy with his hand on his hip at the top of the photo. My Guru Who Wasn’t My Guru tells the story of the nine months I spent hanging around Neem Karoli Baba in India in 1972. I met him in 1971, but almost died from a bout of hepatitis. I returned after I recovered and scraped together enough money for the trip.

In India, 35 years before I moved to CambodiaNote the subtitle: Between Heaven and Hell. I’ve had some remarkable spiritual experiences in my life, but I didn’t want to pretend I don’t stumble along through life. I’ve done as many dumb things as anybody and didn’t want to leave them out of the book. Some are embarrassing, but that’s okay. I don’t mind being embarrassed as much as I would mind pretending to be someone I’m not. This is my latest short description of my book. I’m still polishing it, but this is the best one yet, in my opinion anyway.

Take a magic carpet ride through the honeycomb of time. Serendipity Road is set in Cambodia, where the author has lived for over 10 years. He tells the remarkable story of Sopheak, who wandered into the jungle at the age of eight and didn’t return home for nearly two years. Sopheak introduced the author to a side of Cambodia most foreigners don’t get to see: a land of ghosts and spirits just behind the surface of life. In a series of flashbacks, the author recounts many miraculous experiences he has had. He experienced miracles in India in 1971 and 1972 and experienced energy healing in Bali and as a practitioner in Australia.

Serendipity Road is more than stories about miracles. The author has had his ups and downs in life and doesn’t hesitate to recount the stupid things he has done. As he writes: “Experiences like those should have been enough for me to become a more exemplary person, but there’s an inescapable magnetism that binds us to this thick, dense, dark world.” Hop aboard the magic carpet and discover how fate in the guise of a beautiful goddess he calls Serendipity guides the author through this world from the United States, to Australia, Indonesia and finally Cambodia, a destination a psychic predicted three years before the author even imagined he would visit, much less call home.

I’d also like to add that a palmist friend read my palm while we were having lunch in Hyde Park in Sydney. She saw four children in my life. “The lines are a little fainter, so they may not be your biological children, but they will be yours.” I didn’t believe her at the time, but she was right.

Looking back: 10 years in Cambodia

It’s hard to believe, but the first time I visited Cambodia was nearly 10 years ago. I was going to wait until September to write this post, but something happened yesterday that prompted me to write today. The kid in the photograph below is Sopheak’s little brother, Sarat. I met him in September or October of 2006 at his home in Khmeng Wat. The rain started to fall and he went outside to celebrate. I happened to be there with a camera. It’s the first photograph of him ever taken.

Sarat 2006

Yesterday I attended his engagement party. I like to tease him, but I’m very proud of Sarat. When he moved to Sihanoukville with us, he attended high school. He was behind the others, but stuck with it long enough to learn how to write the Khmer language. He quickly learned English from me and after he finished school, went out looking for work. He had a series of bad jobs, but stuck with it and found a niche for himself in the hospitality industry.

Sarat's engagement party

Sarat’s engagement party

After his engagement party, I reflected on the past 10 years. We’ve lived in the house I built in 2007, but aside from that, nothing has stayed the same. In the intervening years, I’ve been a part of five births and many family dramas. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve been bolstered by the smiles on the children’s faces and inspired by the way Cambodians adapt to change.

Coming from the West, I had some fixed ideas about how life should work, but gradually realised that I could indulge those fixed ideas because of my culture. We Westerners tend to believe in a road-map to success in life. It revolves around the accumulation of wealth. My generation grew up believing you took a series of steps and success would automatically come to you. It worked kind of like this:

  1. Go to school
  2. Learn a trade or
  3. Go on to college and
  4. Work in a profession
  5. Get married
  6. Buy a house
  7. Work for 30 odd years
  8. Retire

Moving to Cambodia has taught me that none of those apply to a large portion of humanity. Sopheak and her brothers and sisters didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. There was no road-map for them because nothing was fixed. Her generation had to improvise in order to get by in life. They didn’t even have the comfort of village life because the Cambodian economy was changing. As is happening all over the world, capitalism has come into the equation and villagers often have to move to the city to earn money. Some go because they want things like mobile phones. Others go to make money to send to their families.

The family home 2006. Five people shared one room.

The family home 2006. Five people shared one room.

Cambodians, like the rest of us, can be good, bad or a little of each. If I have noticed one general trend, though, it’s that most Cambodians include their families and extended families in the decisions they make. Selfishness as we practice it in the West is less prevalent here. We have the luxury of leaving our family and creating our own little worlds. They don’t have such a luxury because their parents don’t get pensions. If a Cambodian abandons their parents, their parents suffer. Often, their village will give them food, but a village can’t afford to pay a doctor or build a house.

I’ve been lucky enough to live with a large Cambodian family. I pay the lion’s share of the expenses, but don’t feel ripped off. The family pays me back in other ways. I’ve certainly had my dramas and have even been ripped off by a couple of family members, but when they were caught, they paid for it. I write about some of the major dramas in my book, but hopefully a more important message comes across. Whatever living here has cost me in money, I feel like I’ve been given much more.

I’m in a state of possible transition right now. Time will tell what happens, but so far, everyone involved has gone out of their way to ensure the transition benefits everyone, myself included. The last transition was nothing like this one and included bitter arguments and selfishness on both sides. If I am destined to move on, one thing I know for certain is that I’ll never regret a day of my 10 years in Cambodia. These have been some of the most enriching (in the real sense of the word) years of my life.

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 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

Email to an old Sihanoukville friend

When I came to Sihanoukville to stay in 2007, I felt out of my depth and did what most newcomers do — asked those who had been here longer than I for their advice. One of those people was a guy who had only been here a few months longer, but he helped me more than most, not because he had all the answers, but because he admitted he didn’t. What he had to offer was better than advice: he offered support.

He left Sihanoukville a couple of years later because he couldn’t make a decent living here. We kept in touch for awhile. Then he got married, had a child and we were out of touch for years. I heard from him recently and he wanted to know what life was like here now. I thought about writing him a lengthy email. Then I decided to write the email here so others could get an inkling of how much this town has changed.

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Hey –,

Great to hear from you! Everything’s good here. It’s too bad you started your business when you did because I think if you had given it a try now it would be much more successful. We don’t have a long, dead rainy season to ride out, for one thing. The numbers drop, but rainy seasons now are as busy as the high seasons used to be.

When you were here, activity was centred around the Hill, downtown and Serendipity beach. The Hill became a bit of a ghost town after they paved Serendipity Road and the road to Otres. I think they tore down the old bus station before you left. A lot of downtown guesthouses suffered because of that, but some hung in there and a few are doing well again. They keep their prices lower than places closer to the beach and some of them pull in customers because they offer good rooms and have good restaurants.

For awhile, the area around Serendipity Road was a zoo. It still gets busy, but people tell me most of the backpackers only stay in that part of town overnight before they move on to Koh Rong or one of the other islands. Those who stay longer term usually gravitate towards the mellower Otres beach, or so I’m told.

hill - paved

Yep. Believe it or not, this is the Hill

If I’d heard from you a few months ago, I would have said the Hill is the same as it was when you left. A few months can make a big difference here, though. The main road has been paved and even the bumpy road in the triangle has been cemented. Most of the old bars are still there, but some nice restaurants have been started, too. I wrote about the changes on the Hill in a recent blog, Victory Hill Gets a Facelift, so I won’t repeat myself here. Yep. Believe it or not, the picture above is at the corner near where your café used to be.

del marI think you had the first or second espresso maker in Sihanoukville. Well, they’re everywhere now. I wrote about that recently, too, in Coffee Houses in Sihanoukville. My favourite is Café del Mar. I wish I’d written that blog a few weeks later because there’s a new del Mar on CT Road, just a few doors down from the clinic outside one of the hotels there. Same great pastries but arguably even better coffee thanks to the state-of-the-art espresso maker they bought for it.

What else is new? Oh yeah. They’re widening the beach road between Sokha beach and Independence beach to make way for a monstrous development. There’s another one planned for Independence beach, too, but I’m not sure when they’ll get started on that.

I’m pretty sure one thing you’d notice if you visited would be how much more traffic there is now. It used to get a bit crazy at around 5 p.m. when all the kids were going home from work or school, but Ekareach Street is busy all the time now. Remember how we used to notice cars on the road? There are so many now it’s not a big deal. I went to Otres beach on Sunday and it seemed like there were as many cars as motorbikes, if not more. Otres has been divided in two. Between Otres 1 and Otres 2 is a long stretch of empty beach. On Sunday, cars lined that section of road from one end to the other.

I went to Otres to escape the Chinese New Year crowds, but the only way I could escape was by renting a Hobie cat. It was a perfect day for sailing. I headed straight out to sea and when I got to the wind-sheltered side of one of the islands, I just stopped for awhile to enjoy the silence. I couldn’t even hear a firecracker going off in the distance.

Remember that big vacant area behind my house? It’s full of houses now and there are two big new apartment complexes at the top of our road. Just down from there are two more and it looks like another one is going up closer to the main road.

I think you’d be blown away by how much Sihanoukville has grown since you were here. I am. I still remember wondering why Ekareach Street was so wide when I first came here. Now I’m wondering why it’s so narrow. To ease traffic and give new businesses a chance to take root, they’ve widened the road that parallels Ekareach Street a couple of blocks down from the Total gas station. It’ll be interesting to see what pops up along that road in the future.

Anyway, it was great to hear from you after so many years. Don’t worry about bringing your family here. A lot of families come to Sihanoukville now and some come to stay. Hope you and your family can make it here some time soon.



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.

Is it time to stop criticising Cambodia?

Criticising Cambodia seems to be the national pastime amongst expats in this country. They get plenty of fuel for their criticisms from the Western media, which can’t seem to find anything good to say about the country. Even when the news is good, they put a negative spin on it. When the news is justifiably bad, you can find parallels or even more egregious activities going on in the country the media is reporting from.

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The idea for this post came to me the other day when I read that the government had agreed to a 28% pay hike for garment workers. That’s pretty huge, but I was sure the Western media would find a way to make the Cambodian government look bad. As I wrote on Facebook:


Sure enough, not long afterwards, I got a Google news alert. The Wall Street Journal reported that “Cambodia Sets Minimum Wage Below Union Demands.” Who is the WSJ to criticise? The minimum wage has been virtually frozen in the United States for years. In real terms, it’s declined. Unions have virtually no power in the U.S. any more, but that doesn’t stop them from taking the moral high ground. 28% is a big jump and a good start. $128 a month may not sound like much to you, but when you pay $20 a month for rent, the extra $28 comes in handy. Okay, it’s $12 short of the union demands, but these things are always negotiated. And no, WSJ, they decided not to strike over it.

You’ve probably read about the 91 year old man who was arrested in Florida for the terrible crime of feeding the homeless. Florida has also made off-the-grid living illegal and in general tries to make life as miserable as possible for anyone below a certain income threshold or who prefers to live as they see fit. The off-the-grid story prompted me to write this on Facebook:

off the gridI wasn’t being facetious. “Freedom” in the United States is determined by laws, some of which grant freedoms, others of which deny them, but since when do laws of any kind constitute freedom? Cambodia has plenty of laws, too, but they are usually only enforced when they need to be enforced and villages are largely self-organised. Even here in our little village in Sihanoukville, the locals do as they see fit. For example, one neighbour installed a speed bump outside his house to force the school kids at the new school to slow down and not endanger his children. Imagine the hoops you would have to jump through to get that done in a “developed” country.

One thing that concerns me deeply is deforestation. Legal and illegal logging in Cambodia is destroying the country’s magnificent jungles at an alarming rate, but Cambodia can’t be singled out for this crime against nature. Just today, I read in Project Censored (“The News That Didn’t Make The News”) that:

In September 2014, the Intact Forest Landscapes initiative, made up of organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Resources Institute, reported that since 2001 Canada has led the world in deforestation, despite being overshadowed by reports of the forests in Brazil and Indonesia.

Finally, I have to touch on the subject of police corruption in Cambodia. There’s nothing “seasoned” expats like to do more than pick on the Sihanoukville police. Some are convinced the traffic police are out there to collect fines for minor traffic violations from we barang only. They are also convinced the police divvy up the money between them at the end of the day. It’s a complete fabrication, but you can’t convince them otherwise.

Yes, I’m sure police corruption exists here, but unfortunately, Cambodia is not alone in this regard. Just the other day, I read about an American policeman who got his son pardoned for a marijuana offence. Meanwhile, thousands if not millions of Americans languish in jails for minor offences like that because they can’t afford lawyers or are not well-connected. Did you know that America has the highest per capita prison population in the world? Now you do.

Then there’s institutionalised corruption. Have you ever heard of civil forfeiture? An article in Forbes defines it like this: “Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property (including cash and cars) without having to prove the owners are guilty.” I’ve embedded a hilarious John Oliver video below to save you further reading and me further writing.

I could go on with other examples, but hopefully you get the idea. Cambodia may not be a shining example for the rest of the world to follow, but it’s come a long way. The countries that criticise it, though, have been going morally backwards for a long time. Some expats and citizens of those countries don’t seem to see it because they rely on the mainstream media for their news. I hate to break it to you, but it’s not news — it’s propaganda. Pointing the finger at other countries and hiding your own sins is a perfect way to take the moral high ground while you get away with rape, pillage and murder.

As expats, we’re guests in Cambodia. Sitting around in bars and cafes picking on Cambodia doesn’t do anyone any good and isn’t going to help you enjoy all this country has to offer. If you really care, make an effort to fix what’s wrong in the country where you have citizenship and let Cambodians fix their country. Judging from the big jump in the minimum wage, they seem to be better at it than we are.

Seeing Cambodia through fresh eyes

You don’t necessarily get jaded after you’ve lived in a place for a long time, but you do get used to things you considered odd or awesome when you first arrived. The great thing about showing first time visitors around is that you get to see everything through their eyes and it seems new and fresh again.

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We met my daughter, Chloe, and her boyfriend, Henry at Phnom Penh Airport at 4:00pm. After an emotional reunion, we got in our driver’s car and drove into PP, where we had already reserved a room at a river front hotel. Chloe and Henry went very quiet. “Are you okay?” I asked. They both looked like they were being shaken out of a trance and took a second to reply. “We’re just trying to take it all in,” Henry said and Chloe agreed. “What’s to take in?” I thought, and then I saw the scene through their eyes. The road was packed with cars and motorbikes in a state of seeming chaos and I remembered being a little freaked out on my first tuk tuk ride into Phnom Penh.

The next day, we took them out to the Killing Fields. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but that’s where they wanted to go. I hadn’t been there since 2006 and was surprised by how much the gardens had filled in over the years. Our tuk tuk driver took us home on a back road so we could see some rural Phnom Penh (yes, it exists), but it rained the previous day and the tuk tuk died in a puddle. No worries. That gave Henry the opportunity to get some exercise. After we got the tuk tuk unstuck, we stopped at a little house and the monks who lived there while their wat was being built let us wash off our muddy feet.

Our next stop was Boat Noodles restaurant, where Chloe and Henry were blown away by how good the food was. After that, we dropped them off at the National Museum and left them to their own devices for a few hours. That evening, Sophie took them to the Night Market, which they thoroughly enjoyed.

The next day, we returned to Sihanoukville. On the way home, we made our usual stop for fresh and dried fruit at a stall on the highway, giving Chloe and Henry their first samples of fruit they had never tried before. They loved it.

gecko in cambodia

Naturally, I wanted to show them the best that Sihanoukville had to offer and didn’t even think of all the little things that might catch their eye. Having geckos climbing around on the walls and across my desk is so normal to me now I don’t even notice them, but Chloe did. I noticed this one, though, when he came out to pose for me while I was writing this.

Chloe and Henry were also impressed by the way chickens casually walk around outside. It’s not something you see every day in the West, but I have to dodge them every day here when I go out on my motorbike.

chickens in sihanoukville

To be fair to my efforts, my visitors were impressed with the places I took them to. We had lunch at Papa Pippo’s on Otres Beach and dinner at Cafe Sushi. They loved them both and were more than happy with their room at Beach Road Hotel, but none of those attractions had as great an effect on them as the little things I hadn’t thought about.

beach road hotel, sihanoukville cambodia

On their last full day in town, I took them for a tuk tuk tour of the half of Sihanoukville they hadn’t seen yet. We started at the Golden Lions, went down to the Sokha Resort and along the road that skirts the beach to Independence Beach. After we rounded the corner and went up the hill, we passed the monkeys that hang out on the side of the road. This was one of the highlights of their trip. Chloe vaguely remembered seeing monkeys in Bali when she was little, but Henry had never seen a monkey outside a zoo in his life.


We hung out with the monkeys for awhile and then moved on to Wat Krom, which they thoroughly enjoyed. Then I got a phone call from Sophie. Lunch was ready. She had pulled out all the stops for this lunch and Chloe and Henry both said it was one of the best meals they’d ever had. They weren’t just being polite, either.


The next morning, Chloe went for a walk down to Sokha beach while Henry went for a run. When we met up for a late breakfast at Led Zephyr, Chloe was excited. “I saw cows running in the road!” she said. Oh yeah, that’s another thing I used to get excited about, but have taken for granted for years. I think it’s very cool that cows can block traffic here when they need to move from one grazing spot to another.

new road otres beach sihanoukville cambodiaIt was over all too soon. We rode out to the airport to see them off at noon and they went on to Siem Reap and from there to Tokyo. I’m sure they’ll be back, though, and I’ll get a chance to show them all the things we couldn’t squeeze into this trip. I’m just pleased that the little things about Cambodia that made me love it when I came here impressed them, too. Hopefully, it will stay this way and chickens, cows and monkeys will still rule the roads next time they come.