Monday, January 3, 2011
It’s the first New Year of the year. Two more to come.
And it’s harvest time in Cambodia.
The monsoons ended a month or so ago. It’s cool and mostly rainless, bringing an end to the primary growing season. Most of the rice has recently been cut and the paddies are dry and turning fallow brown.
Driving through rural Kampong Trach (Kampot province) yesterday I saw several groups threshing rice by hand - the ‘flailing method’ - beating the long stalks against rows of threshing boards and funneling the seed into baskets beneath. Piles of drying rice straw sat stacked in front of houses and bamboo and plastic mats lined the side of the road, covered with new rice seed airing in the sun and breeze. Toward the end of the day, as the sun was setting, women collected the dry seed from the mats into large sacks for storage.
Rural Cambodia is a busy place right now, bustling with harvest work. Not really an ideal time for a New Year holiday. Nevertheless, there will be many celebrations today (Dec 31,) and a certain amount of partying come Chinese New Year in February as well. Cambodians are never ones to pass up on a good holiday, even non-Cambodian ones. But the real New Year here - Khmer New Year (Jol Chhnam Khmei) - is still months away, in April, well after the harvest period has ended and just before the seasonal rains begin, at a time more in sync with the Southeast Asian rhythms of the monsoons and the rice.
Nevertheless, for a westerner like me, today is New Year Eve, my New Year Eve. So, naturally, with three hours to kill driving from Phnom Penh to Kep, I took to reflecting on the year for Cambodia - the news, the big stories, the not so big stories, changes, non-changes, lingering impressions and the state of things. I made a list of whatever came to mind, noting it into my iPhone as I drove. This is that list, with some references added.
* The Preah Vihear border dispute with Thailand was news all year in one form or another – a largely imposed crisis, its current incarnation born of Thailand’s recent internal upheaval. To date, Cambodia has held her own quite well throughout, the Cambodian PM deserving much of the credit for navigating difficult political waters, just bringing the Preah Vihear dispute to a seemingly settled calm... Through there has just been yet another incident spurring yet another crisis. It continues.
* China is HERE in the most present tense, inking huge deals in aid, investment and development, throwing money at Cambodia like it grows on trees in China. The US (and the west) lost significant ground in Cambodia as China soared in the zero-sum game of aid/investment-bought influence and favor. ‘No-strings’ money from China won hands down over American-style hard bargaining aid-for-improvements approach. Uncle Sam isn't the only deep-pockets sugar daddy on the block anymore.
* Boeung Kak Lake is almost gone.
* The Japanese drainage system project in Phnom Penh that tied up traffic and parks for two years was completed this year, seemingly with no visible effect whatsoever on the drainage. In my non-expert observation, it floods now same as before, maybe worse. I’m no engineer but I can’t help but wonder if the demise of Boeung Kak Lake might have something to do with it.
* A mid-term year, the next national elections still 2 years away, internal politics were a bit slow. The government is stable and functioning, probably more so than any government since UNTAC. The CPP is in firm and sole control, holding the majority necessary to control Parliament. SRP is still percolating along, being provocative, getting accused, threatened with jail and touring the world. FUNCINPEC and friends burped and gurgled a couple of times.
* Mu Sochua of SRP distinguished herself, winning a big-stakes game of chicken with the government, standing her ground when others may have gone to France. Who has the cajones in that party, eh? Keep an eye on this lady. She’s going places.
* Land grabbing and evictions continue unabated.
* A Khmer Rouge guy was convicted. 'Enough is enough' was declared. And send more money.
* Boeung Keng Kang 1 is now the city's preferred hunting ground of midnight muggers.
* Yet another beach in Sihanoukville - Otres Beach - has been partially closed for development. Now, something like two thirds of the main beaches on the peninsula are either closed or suffer limited access. (Don't fret, beach-goers. There's still plenty of beach in Sihanoukville for you - Ochheuteal, part of Victory, part of Otres and Sokha if you can afford it.)
* Most of the islands near Sihanoukville remain completely undeveloped - beautiful, pristine beaches and untouched tropical jungle. But it’s not going to last. Plans are afoot. Experience it while you can.
* An exclusive gym for the employees of 7NG Land Development Group has been erected on the site of the Dey Krahorm village eviction. All 7NG Group staff will be free to play different kinds of sports: football, tennis, volleyball, etc.
* Siem Reap managed to get even more touristy with Pub Street at ground zero.
* There are now several KFCs in Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) and Pizza Hut and Burger King are on the way.
* Koh Pich.
* Cambodia, long given one-dimensional coverage in the international press, got a little more comic book this year – a land of Villains, Victims and now Heroes.
* The rural countryside remains about the same - picturesque, poor, ignorant and traditional.
* The guy throwing bricks at foreigners on the riverfront seems to have stopped, and it turns out none of it ever happened anyway.
* Cambodia's first viral video, oh my.
* Pity tourism is still en vogue - 'volunteering,' orphanage visits, be-Angelina-for-a-day packages - providing potentially lucrative outlets for those who would exploit children and the disadvantaged. Study up before you do it.
* There seemed to be an abundance of sex industry focused Johnny-come-lately journalists, Christian saviors and new NGOs turning up this year – over-funded, under-informed and 10 years too late.
* On that same note, evangelical Christian groups seem to be arriving at an ever increasing rate, most involved in charitable work of some sort, all of them with an ulterior motive - hunting and collecting souls. However they have chosen to help - education, rescue, shelters, etc - it always come back to exposing people to the Word of the Lord Jesus.
* The real estate bubble that burst a couple of years ago remains burst. The Monument to Pointless Development at the corner of Monivong and Sihanouk has been completed.
* The tallest building in the Asia was constructed on the riverfront, but sank in the mud and disappeared. (Just kidding, sort of.)
* Kingdom Beer is making a go of it.
* Overland border crossings evolved a little. Poipet immigration seems to have cleaned up it's act. If you can fight your way through the army of visa and money exchange scammers on the Thai side and get to Cambodian immigration, you can get a Cambodian tourist visa for about the right price - $20. The crossing at Koh Kong remains the same, steeped in its overcharging ways. And Prek Chak on the VN border seems to have picked up some of the same habits.
* Police are actually enforcing the helmet laws for motorcyclists and occasionally a smattering of other traffic laws as well. Most people even obey the traffic signals these days, at least during the day. Times change.
* Tourist arrivals are up, though the demographics have changed some. Roads continue to improve. Seems to be lots of small infrastructure projects underway or imminent around the country. Investment, especially Chinese investment, is way up. GDP is up. The country is, in many ways, moving forward.
* The Cambodian riel lost a bit against the dollar but gained it back by years end - settling in around the old standard of 4000R to the dollar. Petrol isn't cheap (US$1-$1.20/liter) but cigarettes and beer still are. A buck for a pack of Marlboros, less for local cigarettes. Can even buy them one at a time. There's still no closing time at the bars...