Sunday, March 28, 2010

My neighbour's wedding is killing me

I am cranky. I have had to get up at 6am for the last 2 days. My neighbour has a wedding.

In Cambodia weddings last for three days and start at 6am. Last night, the first day, celebrations lasted until 12:30am. It resumed at 6am today.

I have no problems with people getting married. My problem with Cambodian weddings is the noise. You will not understand until you live next to a neighbour who hosts a wedding party. The celebrations, from monk chants to Cambodian traditional music to Cambodian hip hop (for the night time party) are broadcast over loudhailers and giant speakers. The music and chanting is incessant. There literally was no break yesterday. I now know what people mean by music torture.

One prisoner at Guantanamo, quoted in The Huffington Post: "It makes you feel like you are going mad. You lose the plot and it's very scary to think that you might go crazy because of all the music, because of the loud noise, and because after a while you don't hear the lyrics at all, all you hear is heavy banging."

Sgt. Mark Hadsell of the U.S. PsyOps teams in Iraq: "If you play it [heavy metal] for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them."

Of course traditional Khmer music is nothing like heavy metal [but it should be noted even songs from the children's show Barney have been used in music torture]. Personally I like traditional Cambodian music because it is happy. But listening to any music at deafening levels kills its charm. Eventually I had a headache from the boom boom boom of Cambodian pop songs blasting out of my neighbour's giant speakers late last night.

I had considered going over to politely ask if the neighbour could soften the music. But I can just imagine it, because this is the response I often get, though in not so many words: "This is our tradition, our culture, our country. If you don't like it, you can fuck off."

Fair enough. Yesterday was one of those days I considered fucking off, taking my work to a place with a more modest traditions (I thought of Nepal yesterday).

By the way, I do not believe it is Cambodian "tradition" to use loudhailers and giant speakers. Don't tell me this is how things were done in the past.

I am sure Cambodians living overseas do not take this "tradition" with them. They would get arrested, because developed countries have rules against noise pollution. The point is there is the tradition, and there are the peripherals, which can easily be dumped without affecting the tradition. An example is the ban on fire crackers during Chinese New Year, because of the fire hazard. It is peripheral to the celebrations. I'd argue so is using loudspeakers in Cambodian weddings.

Fortunately, unlike prisoners at Waco or Guantanamo, I can escape and leave my house (I considered renting a room in a guesthouse just so I could get some sleep). I may just have to. I have been reading books about being positive. So here is me being positive: I am glad that at least it is not a Cambodian funeral, when celebrations start at 4am!

Update: I left the house after writing this post to get away from the noise and what do I find? Another wedding at the Old Market, near the Bloom shop! Sigh. It is wedding season (it goes on all the way until Khmer New Year in April). I had an interesting chat with a friend who works near my shop. Socheata, 23, told me she does not like the loud noise either. The wedding at the Old Market was especially noisy last night she said. I told her this morning, while shopping at the Old Market, I noticed shopkeepers and customers were agitated because they could not hear each other.

I asked why is it so loud? And she said it is "tradition". But when probed about how things were done traditionally, she said the noise is only a recent thing. Now that people have money, they use technology to broadcast the celebrations. But why do they need to broadcast? She said it was to show off.

Ah. As I had suspected. There you have it from a Khmer, not from a "judgemental foreigner". Socheata said poor people do not hold weddings like these. Only the rich who want to advertise the fact that they have money to hold big weddings that last all day and night. Socheata said she herself does not like the noise and will not have such a loud wedding when her time comes. Yay for the younger Khmer generation!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

New Cambodian Gecko named

The gecko was first spotted in 2007 by a team comprising Dr Neang Thy, a senior research officer of the conservation group Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and other researchers from La Sierra University in California, led by Lee Grismer.

The olive-green gecko with white patches containing central black dots will be named Cnemaspis neangthyi, after Dr Neang Thy. Phnom Penh Post story and photo.

Vietnam Fails to Replicate China as Volatility Deters Investors

Interesting Businessweek article. After Vietnam opened its doors to foreign investment in 1986, FDI went from zero to a peak of $60.3 billion in 2008.
"GDP grew at an average annual rate of 7.2 percent from 2000 to 2009, making Vietnam the fastest-growing economy in Asia after China and Cambodia, according to figures from the International Monetary Fund. The government forecasts GDP growth of 6.5 percent for 2010.

“Vietnam was viewed as the final frontier of Asia,” says Son Nam Nguyen, managing partner of Vietnam Capital Partners, who advised global investors on more than $30 billion in financing as the former head of Citigroup Inc.’s investment bank in Vietnam. “No one wanted to miss out on the next China.”

Instead, investors bought into a bubble as higher prices for commodities drove up the cost of living. Inflation peaked at 28.3 percent in August 2008. The central bank raised interest rates three times in 2008 to 14 percent to slow inflation.
Fed up, some are calling it quits.
"Indochina Capital Advisors Ltd. last year decided to liquidate a London-listed Vietnam equity fund that had lost 50 percent of its value. In November, San Francisco-based hedge fund company Passport Capital LLC demanded the return of uninvested cash from a fund that bought Vietnamese and Cambodian property."

Vietnam's inflation rate was 24.4% (2008 est), a change of 193.98% year on year. Cambodia's was 19.70% for the same year, an increase 233.90%.

Cambodia is ranked 21st among countries with the highest inflation. Vietnam is 11.
Source: Indexmundi.

The ADB says food is the main driver of Cambodia's inflation, accounting for over 80% of the inflation between 2002 and 2008 and that food price inflation of this country closely tracks those of Vietnam and Thailand, more so than international food indicators.

Phnom Penh's Pyongyang Restaurant in

I noticed a spike in readers visiting my blog post Pyongyang restaurant - about our April 2007 visit to the restaurant in Phnom Penh. Curious.

So I googled and lo and behold, Slate just published a an article on the same restaurant (now in a different location, since the restaurant has moved - but it is still on Monivorng if I am not wrong). I did notice Siem Reap's Pyongyang restaurant had closed last year and Slate offers and explanation:
"A year ago, the Pyongyang restaurants in Cambodia and Thailand suddenly closed their doors, only to reopen again after a six-month hiatus. [Bertil Lintner, author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korean Under the Kim Clan] cited an Asian diplomat in Bangkok saying the restaurants, like all "capitalist" enterprises, were hit hard by the global economic crisis, but locals familiar with the establishment in Phnom Penh offered another explanation. One worker at a nearby business said Pyongyang closed after a dispute with a Cambodian customer who tried to take one of its North Korean waitresses out for "drinks" after dinner."
I would not be surprised, especially if that customer was a powerful "niak thom" (literally "big person").

Read full article here. PS: Photo-taking is supposedly prohibited at the restaurant but give credit to Slate for this one!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cambodia bans - again!- marriage to South Koreans

In today's news. "Cambodian bars women from marrying South Koreans, citing human trafficking fears" by the Associated Press:
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Cambodia has temporarily barred its citizens from marrying South Korean men after two dozen women were sold into marriage by matchmakers — the second time the government has imposed such a ban....

"The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported Friday that nearly 60 percent of marriages to foreigners in Cambodia involve Korean nationals, and most of them are arranged through brokers....

Cambodia has banned the marriage brokerage business since 2008. Despite the ban, the number of Cambodian women marrying Korean men more than doubled from 551 in 2008 to 1,372 last year, [South Korean news agency] Yonhap said.
Also from Yonhap, "North Korean technocrat executed for bungled currency reform":
SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) -- North Korea executed a former top finance official last week, holding him responsible for the country's currency reform fiasco that has caused massive inflation, worsened food shortages and dented leader Kim Jong-il's efforts to transfer power to a son, sources said Thursday....

Pak, a 77-year-old technocrat, was charged with "deliberately ruining the national economy" as a "son of a big landowner," the sources said....

Pak's execution is the latest in a series of punishments the North has reportedly meted out to its elite for failed economic reforms.
Anyone else reminded of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge?

Don't be an idiot. Stop eating shark fins.

Just watched a documentary on Animal Planet on the illegal shark fin trade. Sharkwater is an award-winning Canadian documentary by Rob Stewart who exposes the exploitation and corruption of the shark-hunting industry in the marine reserves of Cocos Island, Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. He shows how the voracious shark-hunting industry is driving sharks to extinction.

The demand for shark fins in Asia is fuelling this demand. Sadly this practice of eating shark fins has been transported to Cambodia where you can order shark fin soup at some Chinese restaurants in Phnom Penh.

Calling all Cambodians and others - stop ordering the soup! Your demand is feeding an illegal and immoral industry. Sharks are caught and their one and only dorsal fin sliced off and the sharks themselves are thrown back, alive and breathing, into the sea. Without the dorsal fin, the shark sinks to the bottom of the ocean where it dies a slow death by drowning.

Why do the fishermen not keep the whole shark? The reason is simple - money.

It is expensive to provide storage space for the giant sharks on fishing boats and financially more profitable for the fishermen to just take the fins. It's an incredible wastage. And for what?

1) Shark's Fin is tasteless. (Most people just like the taste of the crabmeat and the seasoning they put into the soup)

2) Shark's Fin has ZERO nutritional value.

3) It is ridiculously expensive at US$100 in some places for a bowl of the soupy stuff and up to US$1300 for a shark fin - why would you want to help these people get rich? The fishermen, middle men and restaurant owners are all laughing at you - how easy it is to make money out of stupid, unthinking, people.

4) You can even get mercury poisoning as a Taiwanese woman found out.

“Mercury will not dissolve in cooking,” WildAid Asia consultant Rebecca Chen Chih-hsiao warned. “It is harmful to the brain and nervous system. Pregnant women should definitely avoid eating shark fin as it can damage the mobility and slow down the development of babies.” Chen said shark fin has more bad than good nutritional value, yet the demand for it has grown over the past 10 years as the delicacy became a status symbol.

As usual these stupid people who chase after "status symbols" do not ask questions, simply following fashion trends (I call them sheep-people because they are just like sheep, following the herd).

Eating shark fin soup is another one of these trends. The dish was just a regional delicacy in Canton, south China, until the late 1980s. I learnt this after joining the Facebook group "Do not serve Shark's Fin at YOUR wedding dinner!" started by a Singaporean Chinese woman (as I am). In Singapore, the dish is typically offered at weddings so hotels can charge you an arm an a leg and some couples imagine the dish makes them look rich since they pay so much for it. It's pathetic, really.

In Singapore, the younger, educated, Chinese population is making a stance against this disgusting "tradition" - I put inverted commas because as Singaporean Chinese, it is clearly not our tradition, since the practice was imported from Canton (contrast this with yusheng for instance). Not that tradition should mean much - why keep superstitious and irrational traditional practices? My favourite no-brainer example here is Sati, the custom of burning a widow upon her husband's death in parts of India. That practice was banned in 1829 by the British but one woman was reported to have committed Sati even as late as 2008.

In April last year a rally was held in Singapore to raise awareness against the consumption of shark fins. A large banner bearing the slogan "when sharks die, the oceans die" was displayed at a nearby park close to Singapore's business district. The organisers said more than 3,800 sharks were caught every 20 minutes to meet global demand for shark fin, pushing many shark species towards extinction. A Reuters report in March 2009 Shark fin out of vogue for young Asians summed up how younger people view the practice.

Despite the efforts, Singapore, along with Taiwan and Spain are the biggest suppliers. Hong Kong is on another level on its own - responsible for handling 50-80% of the world's trade in shark fins. A third of all fins imported to Hong Kong come from Europe, with Spain being the largest supplier by far. Other European countries involved include Norway, Britain, France, Portugal and Italy. Fins have also been found to originate from the coastlines of the US, Belize, Panama, Brazil (and Costa Rica as revealed by Sharkwater.) [More information and photo below on gardenofeaden].

So it was unsurprising to read a report released just 2 days ago by "Surging demand for shark fin soup among Asia's booming middle classes is driving many species of these big fish to the brink of extinction." Up to 73 million sharks are killed each year, primarily for their fins.
"As a result, some populations have plummeted by as much as 83 percent, prompting the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to consider proposals at its two-week meeting in Doha to regulate the shark trade.

At least eight shark species, including the scalloped hammerhead and the oceanic whitetip, are being considered for CITES listing which would put some controls on their export.

"The global shark fin trade is driving the oceans to collapse," Courtney Sakai, a senior campaign director at Oceana, said in a statement. "Trade measures are the most direct way to ensure that the powerful economic incentives to catch sharks do not lead to their extinction."
You can read the full report here on

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Siem Reap government buildings swapped with private company

This just in:
Phnom Penh - The local government in Cambodia's tourist hub of Siem Reap is to relocate outside the city next month in an opaque property swap that is to see a private company take over government buildings, many on prime riverfront land, national media reported Thursday. The news followed a number of similar reports about swaps of government land in central Phnom Penh, which has rocketed in value in recent years, for cheaper land outside the capital. Details of the deals are seldom made public.

Siem Reap Deputy Governor Bun Tharith told the Cambodia Daily newspaper that every provincial government department would move to the new site except one, the meteorology office, whose specialized equipment means it has to stay in the city.

"It is a special plan, and it is good for providing efficient services," he said. "The old buildings will be handed over to the company for investment. This happens in every developed country."

However, neither he nor the Ministry of Interior, which has authority over the deal, would be drawn on the details of the land swap or the cost of the new 42-hectare site, which is located 16 kilometres from the city centre.

Siem Reap is home to the Angkor Wat temple complex, which draws millions of local and foreign tourists each year.

Khmer for Barangs

My friend Dale Edmonds who runs Riverkids Project is learning Khmer and has started a blog Khmer101 to share her experience with readers. This is her latest entry:
"After considering jailbreaking my iPhone so I could install Khmer fonts on it, I decided to wait until May. I'm heading up around then, and will be able to get it done by one of the experts at Surya as well as pick up some more Khmer software.

In the meantime, I found and bought two small apps, both by the same guy, Phal Ngim, who has quite a few small iPhone apps. I had his iSpeakKhmer which is decent for phrases but was very basic tourist stuff that I already know.

iKhmerABC and iKhmerVowel are each $0.99 and are basically flashcards and an overview screen. They're nicely done and the pronunciation is clear.

I'll be using this over the next couple of weeks to memorize the alphabet. I'm not quite sure what the best way to learn it is - probably flashcards and practice handwriting.

Right now, as I struggle with the keyboard, I'm muttering "the little basket with the fish hooks, now the dancing ribbon..."
If you are a barang wanting to learn Khmer, check out Dale's blog - she also teaches you how to install Khmer fonts on Mac OSX.

Dale also found the GF 386, the CanaTech English-Khmer and Khmer-English electronic dictionary (cost USD190 at Peace Book Centre in Phnom Penh) useful.

Good luck!

One Million Trees for Ethiopia

A friend in Singapore pointed me to this, after yesterday's post. Awesome. I have a cunning plan - I am going to walk about with mango seeds and stick them in the ground on my walk to the shop! This is because whenever I throw a seed in my garden (after eating the fruit of course), out sprouts a mango tree. They must grow quite easily. Obviously I am mad, cos in this heat the tress would never survive. For this to work, I'll have to take a watering can along with me on my walks!

I think I'll wait till the rainy season to give the trees a headstart. I will need also to pick spots where the tress will not be easily destroyed - run over by cars and motos and what not. Ok that's what I'll do.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cambodia, Singapore heatwave and the importance of trees

I haven't been inspired to blog, or do anything, really, in this heat. According to the BBC it is 38 degrees today here in Siem Reap. And tomorrow. And Saturday. (Friday will be 37 degrees...)

I was watching Singapore news on telly the other day. Feb 2010 was the driest month in history. It was also the month with the lowest rainfall in 140 years. According to the NEA (National Environment Agency), February 2010 also saw the hottest day - 35°C on Friday, 26th. The NEA explains "February falls in the dry phase of the Northeast monsoon season when the rainbelt shifts southwards away from Singapore." But experts also point a finger at the El Nino effect (the irregular warming of surface water in the Pacific) which occurs every two to seven years, and is likely to last until May.

Singapore is at the equator, so in theory, should be hotter than Siem Reap and Cambodia in general, as this diagramme explains. (The equator is hotter because the sun has less area to heat. It is cooler at the north and south poles as the sun has more area to heat up.)

I am not a climate expert but it seems to me Singapore is less hot than Siem Reap for a couple of reasons (it is 32 degrees today in Singapore, for instance). First of all Singapore is an island. Coastal areas are cooler and wetter (clouds form when warm air from inland areas meets cool air from the sea - climate explanations can be found here).

Secondly, Singapore has plenty of trees.

In fact Singapore is also known as the "Garden City" and it's Botanical Gardens was declared the “best urban jungle in Asia” by Time Magazine. Now the National Parks Board wants Singapore to be a "City in the Garden". There are plans for Singaporeans to walk, cycle or roller-blade around the whole of the island republic along verdant, landscaped paths without having to worry about motorised traffic. And there will be gardens in the sky, garden roofs and terraces, and greened walls. Amazing. I cannot wait for that day to come, which apparently will be in a few years' time.

Trees are sadly lacking in Siem Reap town and in Phnom Penh city.

Trees affect climate, and therefore weather, in three ways: they lower temperatures, reduce energy usage and reduce or remove air pollutants. Each part of the tree contributes to climate control, from leaves to roots. The diagramme below shows how leaves cool the air through evapotranspiration. A large oak tree is capable of transpiring 40,000 gallons of water into the atmosphere during one year. (Information and diagramme from How stuff works).

Of course Cambodian cities are not unique - planting trees just does not figure in urban planning for most Asian cities (just think of KL or Bangkok).

Andrew Sia of Malaysia's The Star newspaper noted in an article "Singapore: Garden Goals": "In most parts of the world, population growth is the oft-quoted reason (or excuse) for deforestation. Singapore has a land area of only 700 square kilometres. But between 1986 and 2007, its green cover grew from 35.7% to 46.5% (measured by satellite imaging), as its population leapt rom 2.7 million to 4.6 million."

You can see that taking action on climate change (and planting trees is just one small part of it) is a matter of political will.

Of course, appeals to global warming, and even comfort, are not going to move Cambodian government officials who live and travel in air-conditioned comfort (and so burn up more fossil fuels).

But perhaps appeals to money might.

Cambodians are always telling me much they admire the Singapore government for its cleverness at making money. Well, as it turns out, green landscaping was part of a strategic plan to woo foreign investors. As reported by Andrew Sia:
“We had to make this a First World oasis ... Without having to tell anything to the (foreign investor) CEO, I knew he would understand that ... this is a country where the administration works,” Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew recalled in a dialogue during the 150th anniversary of the Singapore Botanical Gardens last May.

“You just can’t plant a tree and walk away. The tree will die ... If you plant under a flyover, you’ve got to get forest shrubs that grow in shaded areas. It’s complex (maintenance) that all people who run big organisations will understand,” he said.

In other words, landscaping was to be Singapore’s hidden “green trump card”.

So if Siem Reap town officials would like more investment, more tourists, consider drawing up a plan to have more greenery in town. For it's not going to happen on its own.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Guns, ammunition and uniforms for sale in Phnom Penh market

What a great story from, translated from the Khmer language daily Kampuchea Thmey. To me it is just like everything else in this country - the inferiors always end up paying for their superiors' corruption.

Hundreds of military personnel raided a market in Phnom Penh (Psar Terk Thla) last week.

“What the authorities confiscated most were military uniforms, and it is said that those uniforms had been sold by military generals to the traders; in some cases, the names of those who had provided them were still attached to the supplies of uniforms, which actually were to be distributed to soldiers at the Preah Vihear Temple."

These military bosses do not give out equipment to their soldiers. Hats, hammocks and guns have to be bought by the soldiers at Psar Terk Thla, since their higher ups sell everything to the markets for extra cash.

“In addition to uniforms, hammocks, and hats, about 90% of police and military police have to buy also their pistols themselves, because their leaders do not release them to them, as they are expensive, and the leaders can benefit by selling them secretly. They order their closest subordinates to contact traders, doing it as a secret business."

The paper reports the authorities not only confiscated the contraband from ten stalls, but also arrested some sellers "to educate them".

Just another cog in the machine

I just had to share this with readers. I loved this video - so clever and what a great message, so full of hope. I know it'll strike a chord with many of my friends in corporate jobs. The video is one of six shortlisted for the first ever global labour video of the year. To watch them all and to vote, click here.

Let's all continue speaking up for workers' rights and end the soul-destroying system and culture in so many companies.


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