My evil piranha trick at the fish massage

FISH MASSAGE

I’d been tempted for years – now my plan was hatched.

Downtown Siem Reap.  The colour of the markets, the hustle and thrum of the traffic. The incredible smells from sizzling fresh dishes being flame cooked. And, er…those fish massage places.  How many are there? Half a dozen?

I’ve never been tempted to dip my toes in the water tanks. Part of that is just a hygiene thing – do you want to soak your feet in the same water as the previous guy with the fungal problem? But part of that is a private shame of mine: my right foot has two missing toes, and for 30 years since the ‘deep pedicure’ incident I’ve either tried to hide my foot or make light of it. I love trying on shoes because the assistants always squeeze the right shoe in just the right spot and…and there’s nothing there! The shoe sales staff look plainly confused – the shoe seemed to be the right size.  It gets me each time.

But over the years  I’ve been tempted by the presence of the foot massage places to try a practical joke.  The other week I was in the mood. I’d been approached by the foot massage people: “Fish massage sir?” three times today already, and I thought it was time to exorcise my fears.

As I strolled past a fourth fish massage place the young woman came up with a menu in hand: “Fish massage sir?”

I feigned being aghast, and explained that after ‘last time’ I would never have another fish massage. “Do you know what happened?” I asked.  I now had an audience, a couple of would-be customers, the young woman and now her concerned colleague, as well as a group of Australians who were already sitting by the fish tank – delightedly getting their toes nibbled.

“Look, I’ll show you what happened,” I said, taking off my right shoe and rolling down a dusty sock to reveal….THE FOOT FROM HELL!  The sales assistant guy flinched, the would-be customers recoiled and the Australians shrieked with laughter.

But here’s the thing: the young sales woman was unflappable. She looked me straight in the eye and said: “How about try again?  We’ll give you half price.”

She looked concerned, but a sale is a sale. She had me there.

Link here.  Another foot moment.

Or check out this story about my tuk-tuk driver’s miracle baby on Google

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Google translate and the miracle baby

Mr Sotha

Mr Sothy and I were a perfect match. We misunderstood each other in perfect balance – thanks to some technological randomness from Google translate.

Most people have one or two tuk-tuk stories and in my case I feel the collective of tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap make a huge and posotive difference to the visitor’s experience of Cambodia. Recently I met a treasure of a tuk-tuk driver, Mr Sothy, who waited for me patiently while I was processed in the arrivals lounge out at the airport. I was late joining a queue and got beaten to the line by a tour party that had just arrived from Korea. My flight was late as it was and outside Mr Sothy must have waited at least two hours for me, and without complaint. If I was him I’d have been fuming.

To make amends I asked him if he’d be my regular driver over the next three weeks, and over that time our friendship grew, and so did our level of organisation. Each evening we planned the excursions for the next day; trying to streamline the pick-ups and deliveries we each needed to make around town.  Just getting things like photos developed, or getting business cards printed involved trips here and there

MR SOTHY AND ME

That’s Mr Sothy and me. Wonderful driver – this day we were sampling mango smoothies at Blue Pumpkin.

My Khmer is hopeless – I can say thank you, and I know several of the food groups such as chicken, fish or pork – but with languages I’m put in the shade by my wife who can speak in English, Finnish, Cantonese and can get around Italy and France with some of the dignity that cloth-eared tourists like me don’t deserve. For his part, Mr Sothy is still learning English, and on many occasions we’d draw maps in the dust – to explain where we were heading.

Though wait. Mr Sothy had Google translate, and phrase by phrase we were able to work most things out. He proved an amazing detective who helped me find lost friends when I had few if any leads. We both enjoyed such quests.  Google translate really was remarkable.

But one day, Mr Sothy was visibly ill.  “What’s the matter?” I asked his smart phone. He waited for the translation and then spoke back into his Samsung mobile. He showed me the translation which reported bluntly: “I am heavily pregnant and I need to go to hospital.”

Sensing the arrival of a miracle child, I urged Mr Sothy to head to the nearest medical centre a block away.  We drove there. He parked the tuk-tuk and in visible pain entered the small medical unit. A number of patients lay in a ward that opened up to the street.  In a consulting room a small child howled and shrieked: she was getting a needle for some infection – and she wasn’t happy. Her stoic parents held her hands but to little avail.

Presently Mr Sothy was examined and found (to our relief) that there was no baby on the way – but there was severe stomach pain.  The medical staff gave him some medication and had him lie down for 15 minutes.  All the while the small child continued to put up a fight against all medical treatment with her piercing, yowling screams.

Still, in that quarter-hour the tuk-tuk driver felt some relief, and when he stood up once more he was given a prescription of various tablets and capsules. He had no money on him, or not enough, and I felt that in view of his patience at the airport it would be only right for me to pay the medical centre. So we paid up, then bumped our plans back 24 hours and agreed to meet next morning if Mr Sothy felt up to it.

He was in fine health from the next day onward and we treated Google translate with a slice of caution after that. I really enjoyed his company.

How did Google developed translation from Khmer to English?  The work goes back to 2012 – when they employed sheer computational horsepower to the task – comparing Khmer text to English version of the same web pages. Actual translators were not employed. see this backgrounder from the Voice of America – how-google-figured-out khmer-translation  

Click here: for a crash course in Cambodian Motorbike safety.

Got a tuk-tuk story or a Google Translate story? I’d love to hear about it it.

Is Chinese investment going to swamp Cambodia in debt?

YUAN

Direct foreign investment from China into Cambodia now outstrips that from all other sources combined. Is this a problem?

Right now the biggest national issue that everyone is talking about in Cambodia must surely be the topic of Chinese investment. Due to sizeable land transfers particularly around Sihanoukvlle, and with the instant-high-rise nature of Phnom Penh there is a strong and palpable perception that China is disenfranchising local Khmer people.

Property and real estate are the leading forms of foreign investment. In part because the effort going into starting an actual new business (such as a clothes or bicycle factory,) is still harder work in Cambodia than in most of its Asian neighbors. The World Bank puts Cambodia 138th on their Ease of Business Index – with neighboring Vietnam 69th and Thailand 27th by comparison. Cambodia lacks clear business laws and is penalised for the level of paperwork required.

So a big hotel is simpler. Sold as a property development – on a land concession made simple by the Government – the advent of Chinese-built hotels, run for Chinese tourists, with minimal wages going to local Khmer staff (who work 12 hour shifts) and with profits going straight back to China is a highly visible form of direct foreign investment that is hardly leading to a wealthier populace.

The Government has already overturned morality based laws (gambling for money is illegal in Cambodia but has been legalised for visitors to the little-Macau Chinese casinos of Sihanoukville.) So much for sovereignty.

Land concessions are also a big part of the perceived problem. Human Rights Watchdog LICADHO estimate that 2 million hectares of land have been made available for developers, local and foreign, but often at the cost to local land owners who have been kicked off their farms.Dispossessed, (as the ABC of Australia reported of farmers who lost their land to a Sofitel development in March 2016) protestors were shot and wounded by armed forces on behalf of the hotel group.

Here is a map detail land concessions across Cambodia. Concession awarded to Chinese interests are marked in red, local interests are in blue while Vietnamese interests are in green.  Source map is bigger, clearer and interactive. Click here.

CAMBODIAN LAND CONCESSIONS

But is Chinese money exposing Cambodia to a future of debt-laden servitude? Right now Cambodia’s foreign debt as a proportion of GDP is relatively modest, though climbing quickly. There are two prices to be paid though.  One is the social debt – the idea that Cambodians are becoming, and will remain, in a cheap labour economy.

Then there is the fiscal debt. Here Cambodia needs to watch itself. The question is: who owns the infrastructure. Historically this has always been the business of Government, but China has the capital and human resource to come in and extend the sea port, put in hydro schemes and develop the currently struggling road network – then the ‘rates’ must surely get paid to the country that funded these things.

This from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council website: August 2018.

At the end of last month, Cambodia’s Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MPWT) announced that work had been completed on 2,000 kilometres of new roads, seven major bridges and a container terminal servicing the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port. All these initiatives had largely been backed by the Chinese mainland, with funding provided from within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In an article published by the Phnom Penh Post, on March 27th, 2018, journalist Robin Spiess noted that China’s financing and investment of the Belt & Road projects in Cambodia could lead to a significant rise in public debt, and even take it to ‘distress’ levels.

According to a policy paper released by the Center for Global Development, Cambodia will likely see a significant rise in debt to China as a result of the Belt and Road Initiative. At the end of 2016, Cambodia’s total public and publicly guaranteed debt was $6.5 billion, a relatively low percent of the country’s $20 billion GDP. About half of that $6.5 billion debt was owed to China, according to the report.

Miguel Chanco, lead Southeast Asia analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), noted that the report was accurate regarding the risks to Cambodia, but also said any prediction of future debt levels was complicated by the overall lack of transparency of BRI projects.

“Our estimates put the country’s public debt stock at around 35 percent of GDP, which is well below the median for Asean and emerging markets at large,” Chanco said. “Having said that, I am concerned about the lack of transparency in many of China’s projects in Cambodia, as it makes it difficult to determine the latter’s overall sovereign debt commitments.”

Publicly declared projects at the end of 2016 were predicted to leave Cambodia indebted to China by an additional $3.5 billion though this figure might well be much higher.

One example is China’s proposal to develop over two million kilometers of national expressways [in Cambodia] by 2040”, which is a broad-brush swoop of a figure to begin with, and given the geo-technical engineering risks of building on a flat, sand-based terrain could easily blow out beyond the estimated cost of around $26 billion. A blow-out could leave the Kingdom significantly more in debt to China.

Meanwhile estimates of the national debt to 2020 is less fuzzy.

The EIU forecasted a rapid rise in Cambodia’s external debt in the next few years, according to Chanco. “We expect the country’s total foreign debt stock to rise to $17 billion by 2020,” he said.

Right now Chinese investment hasn’t pushed Cambodian debt prospects over the brink, unless you factor in the very real human rights costs. But in pure money terms Cambodia is going for the quick and easy path to economic growth.  It has a long wayto go however, before it becomes an economy – like that of Singapore – where business is easy to conduct and where locals are not in underpaid jobs. Current policy is growing the economy, but it is a recipe for dissatisfaction and a real sense of disenfranchisement.

I write these blogs as an observer of changing Cambodia. I’ve been involved in a small NGO since 2004 back when the tallest building in Phnom Penh was 8 storeys high. I hope expats, volunteers and others in the Cambodian community find these reports useful.  I try to compile hard data from credible sources.

Meanwhile: China and the US square-off in dispute over recent history.  Click here.

 

Revision exercise? China and USA argue over recent Cambodian history

During the years of the Vietnam War, and for some time afterwards I used to view the Voice of America (VoA) news services with deep suspicion. It was propaganda. In recent years my respect for their service as an independent and fair news provider has climbed.  I really think they’re offering a much needed service, especially since the Phnom Penh Post has been degutted to become, shamefully,  little more than a government mouthpiece. The VoA keeps its eye on stories that matter.

Today 11/01/2019 I saw a piece on their website that caught my eye. It concerned the current tit for tat between the US and China over who did, or didn’t drive the fall of Sihanouk at the hands of Lon Nol and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Says the VoA in their report:

The online skirmish began when the U.S. Embassy posted a statement on its Facebook page, Jan. 30, saying the Khmer Rouge “ignorantly depended on a superpower,” an apparent reference to China. The embassy later issued comments claiming Washington was not involved in the coup led by Lon Nol that ousted Sihanouk.

The inference is that China was boots and all involved in supporting Pol Pot and that US attitudes had little to do with the events that led, ultimately to the awful genocide.

China has responded said the VoA:

In response, the Chinese Embassy posted a statement on its Facebook page, Feb. 1, mocking the idea that the coup “was not related to the U.S., but the CIA.”

The truth is China and the USA were both instrumental in events. One history of Chairman Mao, I read, said even the Chinese viewed Pol Pot  as dangerously extreme, or even crazy. I need to check my references on that one – but the picture was clear: any backing by China was arms length, but included supply of landmines.

But the USA already had blood on its hands with Kissinger’s vast and illegal bombing campaign in Cambodia’s north east.  The closest the current embassy comes to acknowledging that is to state:

“The United States has addressed its war legacy by long-standing and substantial efforts for humanitarian de-mining and removing unexploded ordnance (UXO), including the removal of hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made mines, which have injured and killed people for decades,” she said in an email.

Even then, in reviewing its war legacy, the US takes a snipe at who made many (or most) of the 4-10 million landmines said to be laid in Cambodia. Journalists and commentators lay the blame for laying these landmines on several forces during Cambodia’s decades-long war: by the Cambodian army, the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, the non-communist fighters and US forces.

cambodialandmine

Around 50% of all landmine fields have been cleared. Since Since 1979, more than 64,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines in Cambodia – 15,000 from Battambang province and 5,000 from Rattanak Mondul. (Al Jazeera)

In any case, the USA blotted its reputation by suddenly pulling out of landmine removal in late 2017.  “Well just have to raise the money ($2million annually) by going elsewhere,” said Hun Sen at the time.  To that date, the US had sent $132 in removing unexploded mines and bombs.

Why the war of words today?  It appears that the USA is trying to remind the China-leaning Hun Sen Government that they are the good guys here and that it is unwise to put 100% faith in China.  But the words may prove a cheap shot in a losing battle. If you follow the flow of money, then the US has very little to do with Cambodia relative to China. Phnom Penh is mushrooming with Chinese cash and large tracts of Sihanoukville are basically Chinese.  Moral arguments are not effective with this government: especially when they are flawed, revisionist or simply too cheap.

Link to the Voice of America

Landmine clearing organisations:

Landmine Monitor – relevant figures on mine clearance in Cambodia.  Click here.

Mine clearance is undertaken mainly by the national operator, CMAC, and two international mine action NGOs, The HALO Trust and MAG. A national NGO, Cambodian Self-help Demining (CSHD), has been active since 2011.

More discussion. Is China’s investment going to choke Cambodia? click here.

 

 

Free, free at last.A precious shared moment in Cambodia.

DSC_0816 (1)

My friend Pin. I went to visit him in prison and got mixed up in his release.  It was a mighty moment to share – a privilege – but his background, right back to his childhood, is still stacked against him.

Cambodian prisons used to be a horror story of violence and starvation, not to mention corruption.  But they seem to have cleaned up their act – and today the focus is more on rehabilitation. My friend Sopin, or just plain Pin, has been to prison twice on drugs charges – weed – and told me that these places used to be places of fear.  Now, he told me, they’re places of learning and counseling.

On December 28th I went out to visit him with a mutual friend Savong whom I’ve known since 2004 when Pin introduced me to Savong. We subsequently went on to build a school in the countryside. Pin was never central to the school project, but he is the person who connected Savong and me together. He was the key to the story that basically changed my life.

Pin is a handsome guy, with chiseled features and deep, but sparkling eyes. He has a natural charm that belies the fact that he endured a terrible upbriging. He knows no family and was raised at a Buddhist Monastery: Wat Thmey – which is known as the killing fields pagoda in Siem Reap.  On display there are skulls and bones from many hundred who were slaughtered during the genocide of the 1970s. After the years of genocide, when a quarter of the population lost their lives in Cambodia, the nation then endured years of poverty, cut off from world trade or aid.  Cambodia was so poor it could not grow enough rice to feed its own people. Children like Pin became beggars at age 6, and some survived eating insects and the bark off trees. Monasteries took these kids in, and it was at Wat Thmey that Savong grew up with Pin. They have a loyalty that goes way back, though in recent years this has been strained by Savong’s relentless drive to become a businessman and Pin’s loose, somewhat lost lifestyle – dabbling in work and trying out drugs. He served some time as a medic assistant in the army, a time he enjoyed, but three years ago he got arrested for smoking dope and engaging in gambling: in Cambodia you are not allowed to gamble for money – unless you’re a Chinese tourist in which case your Casino dollars are welcome. We’re talking about a weekly poker game.

On that occasion we organised a lawyer and he helped trim 2 years off Pin’s 5 year sentence. Pin resided in Siem Reap Prison where I visited him once.  He had a black eye due to a fight in his cell – where 21 prisoners shared meagre food and a shortage of space.

But he got released after 3 years and photos show that he actually put on weight.  Far from the sallow, hungry image of my imagination, Sopin emerged fit and healthy.

It was not to last.  With a record against his name, in a land where everyone carries around Cambodia ID, and everyone seems to sport a CV in the search for good jobs, Pin couldn’t get work.  A tuk tuk we’d given him 5 years earlier had been lost to drugs and gambling.  Soon he was back with mates who supplied him once more with drugs. It was only a matter of time before he got arrested again. This time he was sent to another prison – one aimed at re-education and rehabilitation.

Savong and I went out to visit on December 28th. The prison consisted of two main buildings set inside a flat dusty spread of farmland. On the left were the kitchens and the classrooms while the building on the right housed the prisoners, just 42 of them.  The gap between the two ground-level buildings was roofed over so that people could take advantage of the shade. We visited in the ‘cool’ season but the sun was already scorching when we came out that afternoon.

The centre is minimum security, with a basic 8ft fence around the grounds, and a guards station at the front gate. This is where we enquired whether we could meet Pin and meet the chief warden. The atmosphere was extremely casual.

As we strode in the 100 metres toward the two buildings we could see at least a dozen prisoners gathering to chat with each other and meeting visitors. Pin saw us and ran up and gave me a mighty hug. He was really happy to see two friends.  He’d not had other visitors in months and while I talked to him, Savong asked a guard whether he could discuss Pin’s case with the chief warden. I didn’t realise the guy he was talking to was a guard: I thought he was one of the prisoners.  Like them he wore a t-shirt, though his was red where everyone else was in blue.

Pin was in good spirits, and he showed me around the prison; the classrooms where they learned cooking and other life skills, as well as the main office in which I could see Savong busy in discussion. A few minutes into our meet up a small boy in blue pants and blue t-shirt came up to Pin and wrapped himself around Pins legs.

“He’s 10,” Pin explained. He was clinging to Pin and sensed something was up.  Our conversation spread out and was shared by other prisoners, all who seemed pretty relaxed though a couple of older guys looked pretty ravaged by drugs.  They stuck to themselves. Pin explained how he’d become the informal leader of the 42 prisoners, and had made sure the small boy – who was inside for glue sniffing (his parents were deemed unable to provide adequate care,) – was getting adequate care. Pin had clearly become a father figure for the boy.

Soon, Savong came out and explained that the prison was at a tipping point with Sopin. He’d made good progress, and the warden had noted our big hug too: an indication that Pin had a support network outside the prison gates. Finally they said that rehab prison was costly to provide and that Pin had been unable to pay anything toward the rehab. Technically he owed the Centre. It wasn’t a bribe, but it is hard to explain the leeway that the Chief Warden had at his disposal. What we did was suggest a few hundred dollars would settle what was owing, as well we could offer the promise to support Pin once on the outside. Would this be enough for the prison to let our friend go?  Suddenly this seemed to be on the cards.

Pin realised that the course of the discussion was about his future – and he could sense the possibility of an early release – and as I tried talking to him he really couldn’t concentrate on our particular conversation. He indicated that his heart was jumping out of his rib cage.  His future was on the line.

Savong said he needed to get back into town to get some cash, and he left me there so we could talk some more. Meanwhile the junior guard, the guy with the red shirt, was summoned to the Chief’s office and told that Pin could be released immediately. Word got around everyone in the shaded area within about 10 seconds. Pin lit up with the news and his mates rushed up to congratulate him. The small boy was crowded out and I nudged the well-wishers to one side so that the boy could snuggle up to Sopin. The boy was in tears.  How many times had he lost the people he’d learned to trust?  Now he was losing again.

I’m told that another chidren’s welfare NGO has good plans to look after the boy, but in the midst of what was proving to be an enjoyable visit the look on the small boy’s face was haunting.

Savong soon returned and signed some papers and, well, that was it.  Pin was free to go. Savong headed back to his car while I helped Pin carry some of his meagre possessions from the dormitory block where, now that visiting time was up, the prisoners had returned.  They were now behind bars, hanging onto these and watching Pin’s exit.

What a mighty feeling that was. As Pin walked the hundred meters back to the guard’s gate the other prisoners stood and gave him a ‘kar teahdai’ which is Khmer for a round of applause. Pin’s chest swelled and he strode in the same way astronauts in the movies stride when they’ve come back to earth – the slow motion walk of heroes. It was a pleasure to share that moment, though I bit my lip at the same time. This was just the beginning for Pin, once more, and I wondered how he’d cope this time, now he was out again. But what got me most was the face of the small boy in blue. He was standing at the barred window and applauding like the others. But when I turned to see him he momentarily stopped applauding and wiped away tears.

PS.  A week or two later I learned that Pin has gone back, as a visitor, to check that the little boy is okay. I hope they stay in contact.

Link:   A joke about Cambodian Prisons that got a little too close for comfort.

By the way – if you find my blogs thoughtful,  interesting or entertaining, don’t forget to hit the follow button! I love to write and I’d love your company.

Shades of Grey. A Before and After in Lolei Village

Lolei Village is very near Savong’s School in terms of distance from Siem Reap, but is located further North; over the road as it were, with Number 6 Highway cutting its dangerous swathe between Lolei and the Rolous temples of Bakong.

In the heart of the village is the home of teacher Sovannarith who now runs a school of his own, dedicated to teaching English and computer skills to the children of his village. He used to teach at Savong’s School, right back in the days when salaries were a competitive $US45 a month and computer education was not even feasible.

Sovannarith and me

The “before” shot. Some 12 years ago – 2007 – we took this photo in a freshly painted classroom at Savong’s School. Sovannarith hasn’t changed, but since then my hair has adopted a Paul Newman silver.

After teaching at Savong’s School for several years, while he studied hard to complete his arts degree from the internationally recognised Pannasastra University of Cambodia, Sovannarith harbored dreams of running his own school. He wanted something for his own community.  I was keen to see what he had achieved since 2011.

Actually since 2005 I had already been familiar with the local school situation in Lolei thanks to the great work of Schools for Children of Cambodia (SCC), a registered and well-run charity from the UK that focuses on the rural children of Siem Reap province. Like us, I’m sure they must constantly explain that despite the boom town quality of Siem Reap, the rural areas are still desperately poor.  One of the original schools they supported, back in 2005, was in Lolei Village.

Alas and through no fault of SCC the arrangement didn’t work out, and rather than run the school in their prescribed way the then headmaster had a seriously divergent view of how the school ought to run. SCC walked, and soon put their hard earned funds to better use elsewhere. They continue to excellent work.

But from that story, told to me by members of the SCC, I was always aware that Sovannarith’s village had an educational gap whereby the local State School still provided inadequate teaching of English (and computer skills) to children who need both if they wish to proceed into salaried employment or further tertiary education.

Enter Sovannarith who set up Angkor Legacy Academy in April 2011. It is a vibrant place, with high quality volunteers (the one’s I met were a quantum leap from the gangling gap-year ‘Facebook Volunteers’ who often visit these organisations.) and a well equipped computer lab with late-model laptops.  The vibe was happy, busy and thriving.

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The “After” shot. 2019. I turned up unannounced at Sovannarith’s school in Lolei and Rith strode up to the tuk tuk as I alighted – “Greetings stranger!” he announced. “Long time no see!” Comparing the photos, I wonder if he was referring to our mutual need for glasses.

Sovannarith made me feel very welcome, and during our brief chat (I was on the way to Savong’s School,) we reflected on times past. Sovannarith hasn’t changed one bit.  He is still passionate about educating the children of rural Cambodia. But he was kind enough also to say that his time at Savong’s School was what got him started – we gave him a teaching job and in those years he learned a lot about running a classroom and running a school. “Without that experience I wouldn’t be here today running the Angkor Legacy Academy,” he told me.

That made me feel very gratified. In 2004 when we commenced plans to build a school in Bakong, Savong and I never dreamed that his school would help multiply the number of teachers and schools. I can count 9 schools that began in a similar fashion to Sovannarith’s project and owe their start to Savong’s initial vision. If anything, that is the major achievement of the project. I think SCC and other organisations can also claim similar influence.  As I’ve found in business, losing good staff can be sad – but seeing them succeed is a wonderful thing.

Links:

Schools For Cambodian Children

Angkor Legacy Academy

For more on this theme:

Back to school. 2019.

The Great Divide: Life of a Teacher