Monday, May 30, 2011

Street Meat

Street meat for deep fry, Sukhumvit Soi 4, Bangkok, Thailand

Sunday, May 29, 2011


The Dutch government announced today that the Netherlands will soon ban tourists from their famed marijuana dispensing coffee shops which have long offered a haven for pot smokers from around the world. A letter from the Dutch Parliament stated, "In order to tackle the nuisance and criminality associated with coffee shops and drug trafficking, the open-door policy of coffee shops will end..."

So comes the conclusion of drug tourism in the Netherlands, or at least to the above-the-board type.

Which reminds me of a travel story from decades back, the last time I was in Amsterdam...


It was mid-winter about 24 years ago.

I was sitting in a coffee shop in the tourist district of Amsterdam with some friends, when a strung-out looking junky-type wearing a brand new, bright red, cold-weather jumpsuit stumbled through the door and planted himself at the end of the counter a few seats away. Spittle dribbling down his thick beard, he muttered loudly to himself about how America "is shit because Van Damme is soooo much better than Sylvester Stallone," all the while staring at us, or at least trying to stare at us, his head slowly bobbing and his eyes seemingly unable to focus.

Paying him little mind, we continued to sip tea and coffee and chat amongst ourselves (including speculating quietly about the possible origins of the brand new bright red jumpsuit) as some other guy sitting at the counter near me slowly cleaned some ganja to roll a joint. A few minutes later, just as he put joint to lips, the jumpsuit mumbler rose abruptly to his feet and marched unsteadily toward us with obvious purpose in his plodding step.

I was the closest. He stopped right in front of me, inches away, and looked me as square in the eyes as he could muster. I was prepared to say 'no' to pretty much anything he had to ask, but his request surprised me. Motioning to the ashtray on the counter, he implored, "Can I eat your seeds and roaches...Maaaaan?," his Germanic accent adding a very appropriate Tommy Chong drawl to his already slurred speech.

I didn't know quite what to think except, 'how can I deny him this?'

Mildly dumbstruck, I slowly nodded and leaned back so he could reach across and pick up the ashtray. Dirty treasure in hand, he squatted on the floor in front of us, blew most of the ashes out of the ashtray and then dumped the entire contents into his mouth - seeds, sticks, remaining ashes, roaches, a couple of filters and a used tea bag with the tag string still attached. He reach into his mouth and fished out the string, held on and pulled, squeezing the teabag against his tongue, sucking it with an expression of deep savor and using the remaining moister to help swallow the dry sticks and seeds. Fearing he would choke, I offered my cup of tea, but he refused.

When finished, he made a smooth exit. With taught, seemingly practiced moves, he stood straight, handed me the ashtray, put the teabag in his pocket, offered a polite "thank you," felt his way back along the counter to the door and left.

The proprietor emerged and walked over, broom in hand to clean up the ashes from the floor. He shook his head, grumbling, "fooking Danish junkie comes in here everyday."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fishing, Battambang

Girl Fishing, Battambang, Cambodia
Country girl, fishing. Behind Phnom Ek, Battambang, Cambodia

'Battambang.' Great name.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Judgment Day

Photo from The Cambodia Daily, Philip Heijmans, May 17
A group of Christian loons in the US (Family Radio) have predicted that Judgment Day will occur day after tomorrow, May 21, followed by the End of the World a few months later. According to these people, this Saturday there will be a global earthquake and then Jesus will suck all the rapture-ready folk up to heaven like some kind of holy vacuum cleaner. (T-shirts available for a very limited time.)  

Family Radio and their adherents have been peddling this lunacy around the US for the last year and in recent months have published advertisements around the world touting their Armageddon prophesy.

Yesterday The Cambodia Daily reported that Family Radio doomsday ads were on display on several billboards around Phnom Penh, and that upon learning of the existence of these billboard advertisements the Cambodian government took exception. Today's Daily reported that the city has ordered the billboards removed today on the basis that they had not received prior approval from the appropriate authorities. The Ministry of Information also ordered the advertisements taken down "to avoid confusion among the public and to ensure public order."

In fact, many if not all of the billboard adverts were removed yesterday afternoon. I saw two of the billboards in the Wat Sampo Meas area yesterday around 2:00PM with the advertisements still in place. I went home to get my camera and returned at about 4:30PM only to find that the advertisements had already been removed (which is why I have used the photo from yesterday's Cambodia Daily here instead of my own.)

Ordinarily I would be arguing that this is a violation of freedom of speech and religion, but in this particular case I agree with the government order to remove the ads. The right to freedom of speech is not absolute. As is often noted, it does not include the freedom to falsely yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theater because such an action would present a clear danger to the public. I think these doomsday ads represent just such a case.

I recall November 1994 when the Texas-based evangelical preacher Mike Evans came to Cambodia to hold a faith-healing revival. The event was preceded by flurry of advertising promising that of those who attended his revival at Olympic Stadium would be healed - that the blind would see and the lame would walk. Many Cambodians bought it. Thousands of desperate, poverty stricken folk from the countryside sold their meager possessions - their bit of land, their store of rice, their cow, whatever they had - to come to Phnom Penh to be healed. They showed up in ox-carts and on foot, limping into town, hauling along their elderly parents and ailing children in the hope that they might be healed. The event night came and the stadium was full. Evans took the stage and did his faith healing shtick - prancing this way and that, sweating, praying fervently and yelling passages from the Bible - pointing at people and declaring them "Healed!!" After a short while of Evans' snake oil show, the audience realized that nobody was being healed - that their children were still sick and grandma was still dying. Grumbles of "fraud" grew, and then a near riot ensued. The betrayed and angry crowd chased Evans from the stage, out to the street and back to his luxury room at the Hotel Cambodiana, where he cowered until he was able to escape the country with police protection the following day. He no doubt cost everything of many who could least afford it - their meager savings, their food, their stock animals, their homes, even their lives, or worse, the lives of their loved ones. Unrepentant, Evans scurried back to Texas and made hay of the ordeal, claiming to his American audience that the Khmer Rouge, in their hatred of Jesus, had chased him out of the country.

As a side note, as a result of the Evans debacle the Christian church in Cambodia experienced its first overt persecution since it had regained freedom in 1990. Evans did damage to the cause of Christianity in this country that lingered for years, perhaps to this day.

And here today we have another group of fringe dwelling Bible thumpers trying to foist their lunacy onto the Cambodian people. At least in America, from which these people hail, they are preaching it to educated (or semi educated) folk, most with cash to spare, at least by comparison to most of the Cambodian population. And the Americans have seen plenty of these sorts of Christian charlatans before. If they choose to buy into the tomfoolery, they have nobody to blame but themselves. But here in Cambodia, where a significant portion of the population is uneducated, unsophisticated and unfamiliar the ways of Christian doomsayers from the West, many are particularly vulnerable to this sort of chicanery. Given the susceptible state of much of the Cambodian populace, these advertisements posed a clear and present threat to public welfare and safety. As such, it was right and correct for the Cambodian government to order their removal. 

And on a final note, like the Evans farce, the Family Radio doomsaying will do their fellow Christians no favors in Cambodia. Aside from making Christians look foolish, this sort of incident may cause the government to turn a more scrutinizing eye toward foreign-run Christian activities in Cambodia, some of which are already skirting the edges of Cambodia's anti-proselytizing laws.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Riverfront billboards collapse again

Collapsed sign lays across road. Note the car underneath.

Over the last couple of years giant advertising signboards have been erected along the Phnom Penh riverfront on the Chrouy Changvar peninsula on the far side of the river, facing across to the popular riverfront tourist area opposite. A few weeks back one of the signboards collapsed, reportedly due to force of the winds that regularly blow along the river. There were no injuries at the time but local residents expressed fears that there easily could have been and might still be as several more signboards were still in place just meters from the riverfront road and residential area.

It seems that those fears may have been realized today.

Before collapse (about 2 months ago.)

After collapse (today)
This afternoon around 12:30PM, three more of the enormous Chrouy Changvar signboards collapsed, presumably due to the moderate winds that were blowing in Phnom Penh today. Two fell harmlessly into the grassy field behind the boards, but one fell across the road, its heavy iron superstructure crushing roadside drink stands, cars and the fronts of houses on the other side of the road. Though as yet unconfirmed, locals at the scene report that there were several injuries and even fatalities. Again, this has not been confirmed, but given the size and weight of the metal support structure and its current position laying across 50 meters of road,  it is a distinct possibility.

The road is completely covered with the metal remnants of the board. Bits of roadside drink carts lay crushed and strewn about. At least one car is visible trapped under the fallen structure. A motodup driver at the scene noted that it was fortunate the incident occurred during the lunch hour when fewer people were on the road than in the morning and late afternoon, though I am not sure those who were eating at the now flattened roadside stand would agree.

Crushed drink cart at edge of collapse
When I visited the area a few hours after the event, crowds were still present and cranes were working to lift the broken pylons and twisted beams off the road and damaged houses.

Crowd looks on as crane works to remove collapsed sign

If people have indeed lost their lives or were seriously injured, I wonder if and how much compensation will be paid to the surviving families. If it is anything similar the usual compensation for a life 'accidentally' taken in Cambodia, one life will likely cost less than the price of one of those fallen signboards.

But perhaps I speak too quickly.

We shall see.

Father and baby look on at crushed houses

Collapsed sign lays across road

Drink vendors still working next to collapse area

Signboard collapsed in field

Two signboards collapsed in field

Broken base of signboard collapsed in field

Broken structure of sign that fell across road

Broken pylons of signboard that fell across road

Broken pylon of signboard that fell across road

One of the remaining signboards standing ominously close to the road

UPDATE, May 11, 2011: According to today's Cambodia Daily, there were no fatalities in the signboard collapse and only two injuries - a woman and a child. If that is the extent of the human cost, it is indeed a very lucky turn of events - bordering on the miraculous. According to the CD article, local residents continue to express fear over the presence of the billboards and now angered that the city does not seem to take their safety seriously. The Phnom Penh municipal director of commercial advertising asserted that the responsibility falls to the owner of the boards (Moon Media.) He went on, "We made sure of the safety of how they built the billboards and that they were built expertly...We warned the company to be careful in constructing the billboards because it is the rainy season."

Aside from the continued danger to the residents living near these signboards, what concerns me at this point is the apparent failure of authorities to learn and act effectively on a similar billboard collapse just one month ago. If they had, this second collapse may have been averted. Late last year Phnom Penh suffered the water festival tragedy on Koh Pich Bridge which took hundreds of lives. One would hope and assume that lessons were learned from that tragedy and steps taken to prevent a repeat of such an occurrence. Then again, I would have assumed the same of the first signboard collapse.