Saturday, January 14, 2006

Lopburi, Thailand

Just completed a fun run from Cambodia. A fun run is what I have called the insanely long bouts of transportation where a strange desire for perpetual motion grips me and makes me push onwards until exhaustion or logistics stop me. Logistics have stopped me in Lopburi, a town slightly north of Bangkok. I spent a great day in an insanely crowded minivan (21 adults and 6 children inside, 2 adults on the roof rack) getting to the Thai border and then jumped off and on buses onto Bangkok. I decided against staying in the big B and got a train as far north as I could which, this being another special weekend in Thailand, was Lopburi.

So I am now again in the bosom of civilisation. I can now plan arrivals with at least 2 hours accuracy, roads are paved and there is some link with the number of seats on a mode of transport and the amount of people on board. I can eat off streetstalls without fear, I can rely on being blonde for a whole day (on Cambodian transports, the dust transforms me into a dark stranger within a couple of hours) and I don't have to look around every few minutes to find the group of sprogs who have yelled "hello" at me in order to respond with a goofy smile and an exaggerated wave. I can now wallow in familiar comforts and luxuries and, for some reason, I'm not too happy about it.

The scorching hot Kingdom of Cambodia has been the highlight of my trip so far. For all the hassles, nuisances, difficulties and plain oddities of the place, I would place it at the top of the list for anyone toying with the idea of a holiday in South East Asia.

I think this is because Cambodia has finally got me to drop my guard. My protective armor of cynicism and detachment was chipped away by strong emotional experiences at both ends of the spectrum of human sentiment. The anger, disgust and fury I felt visiting the testaments to human fuckery of Cambodia's recent past and the sheer awe that Angkor stirred in me have made this a different experience. Joci Causa was put on hold for a while.

So what's my take on Cambodia? It's conflicted.

From a backpacker perspective this place is paradise. The tour groups have not quite made it here but the trail is well laid out for Alex Garland readers. There is a rough and ready aspect to Cambodia that makes it seems like you are truly a wily traveler while at the same time true effort is minimal. There is no problem that improvisation and money cannot solve and there a great "anything goes" atmosphere pervades the place.

You get used to this very quickly and from time to time you astonish yourself by realising that you thought it perfectly normal to spend an evening drinking beer and whisky, propped up against the ledge of a pit full of small crocs, whilst looking at a Cambodian guy with a huge mullet play the keyboard so that a granny in a Eurovision style suit could warble her way through 60's classics. The flip side of this is that you see good people getting carried away with the spirit and doing nasty stuff like shooting live chickens with an M60 and seeing nothing wrong with it, or just being plain callous. The Bokor Hill party at New Year went on till the wee hours despite the fact that 2 people had been killed. Backpackers had decided that this was the way things go in Cambodia and partied on whilst the bodies were cooling. It has been described to me as a wonderful evening.

The place can be quite draining and the backpacker ethos of constant friendliness to locals can become a burden. Seasoned expats are capable of ignoring the constants pleas, demands and whatnot of Cambodia's army of mendicants but backpackers still insist on making eye contact and maintaining a friendly smile as they repeat a constant mantra of negations. It would be comforting to see Cambodians as an amorphous and annoying mass as when you acknowledge the individuality of the people who try and get money off you, you are forced to truly see their misery. However, you will miss out on a lot if you do.

I really liked the Cambodians. There's usually an angle to the many occasions when they talk to you but once you have declined or accepted whatever they wanted or offered they will quite happily move on and chat with you for hours on end. They are also truly keen to make your stay a good one and I have seen many occasions where an unlucky backpacker with a problem (anything from theft, missed flights or illness) was told to sit down and have a drink while an army of locals cooked up ways to rectify whatever caused distress.

The problem with liking the Cambodians and spending a lot of time talking to them is that when you have a look at the political situation of the country it annoys you even more.

The Khmer Rouge took bad governance as far as it would go with a concerted effort to destroy the country they had taken over. This was pretty much policy as they wanted to build a country from scratch when they declared Year Zero. I have already gone over the pathetic way the rest of the world dealt with Pol Pot's regime but what now irks me is what came after.

At a glance it looks like the big players of this world were pretty much willing to accept anyone who was not as bad as the Khmer Rouge. The regime was seen as a baseline and anyone who did better were left to go ahead with it. As the line not to cross was genocide, piss poor governance became the norm and Cambodia is still destitute despite the millions of aid poured into the country. The leaders of the place have been a consistently obdurate bunch of fuckers and the present PM, Hun Sen, is no exception. A former Khmer Rouge, he legged it to Vietnam only once Pol Pot started to have his own men killed. When the Vietnamese took over he worked for the Cambodian Communist Party and the puppet government. He has been a player since those days and is involved with quite a of number of coups, extra-judicial killings and other hallmarks of third world despotism.

The governments of post-KR Cambodia have succeeded in 2 things. Milking the west and making corruption into an institution. Hun Sen and his predecessors have often made ominous threats/warnings that any cut or delay in aid could result in loss of civil rights for Cambodians. They have also used that same argument with regards to the ludicrously slow process of getting Khmer Rouge leaders to trial. Cough up or no justice. Sadly, the West has played along even if they make noises to the contrary. The US Senate once declared they would increase their Aid package by several million if only Hun Sen was not re-elected.

The leaders of Cambodia believe their power is God given and that elections are a rigmarole done to assuage the concerns of their western cash machines. Recently the Government has arrested 2 Human Rights activists for "diffamatory" remarks. When other countries complained about this the statement from the ministry went along the lines of "Do they not want us to use the law? Would they rather we use force?". They assume that foreign donors would see it as an improvement that they use legal methods to silence critics. Sadly, in a way they are right.

Another incident that I found revealing was the New Years Eve shooting that I have mentioned above. No one has been nicked for the simple reason that the shooters and the victims were part of a club the Cambodians call The Untouchables. The Untouchables are friends and family of the ruling elite and are not subject to the law. The papers reported the local chief of plod saying that they knew who the people involved were but would do nothing untill he got the go ahead from senior officials in the capital. What happened was that 2 of these groups got pissed up and had a dispute that they solved with guns. All involved were Untouchables and probably high up as one of the dead was a bopdyguard of Hun Sen.

To understand why the vast inflow of money from outside is a problem one must try and grasp how truly bent Cambodian officialdom is. In a way the system is set up to breed corruption. Coppers are paid about $20-30 dollars a month. Even in Cambodia that would be barely enough to survive and certainly not enough to support a family. Therefore they are on the take with predictable results for justice. While I was there there was news of a man arrested for posing as a Ministry of Justice official and extracting money in exchanges for promotions from various coppers. He was nicked not for attempting to extract bribes but for "cheating" as he could not deliver.

The money that fuels this corruption and keeps the Untouchables in power, and living it large, comes from us. That's why I am conflicted. In Indonesia the people were being screwed as an side of effect of corporate greed. Here the masses are getting fucked because of good intentions. Not so much a case of "Fuck You, this is business" but a demonstration that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Cambodia receives over 500 million dollars in aid a year. A vast amount of that gets creamed off by the big boys and a lot of it gets chipped away by petty officials. What bothers me about this is that I have been just as complicit with this state of affairs as anybody else. I have often supported charities in the belief that they do a fine job whilst staying apolitical. This is self-delusion at its finest. I know that millions of dollars worth of goods, services or outright cash is never apolitical. What I am now wondering is if the way the aid system works in Cambodia creates a perverse incentive.

If the rulers get their money by milking the donations of richer countries, they have little reason to ensure that the lot of Cambodians improve. They have a vested interest in keeping things crap so that the money keeps pouring in. Is the fuzzy thinking I have been guilty of and has made me drop a quid in a collection box making things worse or better for the Cambodians?

There is no real solution to this type of problem. You can't cut off aid totally as Cambodians would suffer but to continue as it is really makes their lives difficult. I suppose that better control of the money and a bit of hardball with the rulers (seizing their foreign assets when they make their nasty threats for example) could do the trick but this has an element of "Take up the White Man's Burden" to it. If the West is going to be imperialist maybe we should at least do it properly.

So there is my take on Cambodia and its present problems. A real reflection on the place would take a book so I'll stop here.

Next stop, Chiang Mai and the Chinese Consulate. The Middle Kingdom beckons.

Take care,



Anonymous Nicolas said...


on voit bien quelques raisons qui expliqueraient, faute de justifier, ce flot d'argent vers le Cambodge: position géographique du pays, et donc application de je ne sais quelle doctrine de containment, roll-back, ou autre plus récente, puisque celà a pour effet de maintenir un régime dont l'unique qualité, aux yeux de nos "démocraties", pourrait être de ne plus brandir l'étendard communiste. Tu es certainement au fait du racket organisé des sites d'Angkor; on ferme les yeux sur les 3 côtés du Triangle d'Or; sur les filières d'adoption.
Je ne comprends pas bien, alors que lesdites doctrines étaient me semble-t-il à peu près enterrées, ré-enterrées après sept 11th, que celà continue. Une idée?
Personne n'a vraiment tenté d'essayer d'avoir l'espoir d'investir un Euro là bas, en dehors de l'hôtellerie dans un rayon de 500m autour de l'entrée d'Angkor en tout cas. Alors, qu'est ce qui préoccupe l'Ouest à hauteur des centaines de millions déversés chaque année, et prélevé sur mes impôts en plus... As-tu une piste... (déminée)? Doit-on croire en la possibilité qu'une infime fraction de cet argent arrive jusqu'au sol, et essème un peu?...

Monday, January 16, 2006 5:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Arabin, je vais contribuer à un programme de réforme de la justice (formation des avocats notamment). L'idée est d'améliorer le systeme judiciaire pour que les cambodgiens puissent investir surement. pas forcément des investissements en dollars de grosses boites ricaines, mais pour les investissement des petits artisans par ex. donc c est un gros programme dont un des volets et la réforme du barreau et de la formation des avocats. why not.. en tt cas arabin, tu m'éclaire pas mal sur la situation politique.. merci.
ps. pour info ce taf me payera pas de voyage la bas.

Thursday, January 19, 2006 3:42:00 PM  

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