The Gap Between

On a walk through my neighborhood in Phnom Penh, I get a taste of the spectrum of wealth and poverty that’s here in Cambodia. Going by these crazy houses with their 3 story greek-esk columns, I marvel that I’ve never seen this decadence even in Canberra. It’s even more so as in my ‘hood here, for Just around the corner, the homeless vendors can be seen shutting down their makeshift shacks at night to shelter up against the side of these street. The amazing contrast is, these villagers come to Phnom Penh with only their cart full of coconuts. they don’t return home till they sell all of them, and they will sleep in the streets until they do. I bought 2 coconuts or $3, rather than at some foreign owned grocery. This meager money I spent goes a long way with him. For most of my time so far, I’ve been surprisingly impartial in the face of the poverty I’ve seeing here. But something about the direct contact I had with this person jolted me a bit. I’ve vowed to shop from more street vendors during my time here instead of at the conglomerate supermarkets.

The Government came out last week saying that the number of people living on the streets of Phnom Penh dropped sharply in 2009, according to a government report released Tuesday, though NGOs that provide services to the homeless said the figures appeared to be a low estimate. The report, prepared by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, cites a 44-percent decrease in the number of homeless people in the capital – from 4,189 to 2,337

Thats hard to take from a Government that actively makes people homeless. an Example of this is the Boeung Kak Lake saga. Well soon there will be no lake. The area was sold for $79 million a year ago and the lake is being filled in to make way for shops and high-end apartments. During my month-long stay in Phnom Penh I watched a sandbar grow from the south side Boeung Kak into the center of the lake. All day a pipeline pumped sand from the Tonle Sap River on the other side of town and sent water back out the other way. Bulldozers and tractors rumbled around on the new finger of land pushing sand from one spot to another.

The story begins here in Boeung Kak Lake in the heart of the capital, Phnom Penh. Two years ago, a little-known developer signed a 99-year lease with the council for this 133-hectare site. And they’re filling 90% of the lake with sand to build a high-rise. The problem for people living around the edge of the lake is, as the sand goes in the water level rises and their houses go under. These include 4000 families who live around the lake. Since the beginning, there’s been a total lack of transparency about the deal.

Boeung Kak has for years been a hangout for backpackers in Phnom Penh. The area, which is commonly called Lakeside and is located behind the relatively upscale Phnom Penh Hotel, is a collection of skinny alleyways lined by bars, guesthouses, travel agencies and Internet cafes. Many of Lakeside’s longtime residents have been displaced by the development; many made homeless. Those with land titles are supposed to be compensated $8,000 by the government, hardly a fraction of what their buildings and businesses are worth. But no money has been paid out yet. It would not surprise anyone if the government never paid; after all, there is precedent.

Since the plans for the lake were made public a couple of years ago, residents have complained, protests have been held and NGOs have advocated on behalf of the soon to be evicted. But still the pipeline gushes sand and the finger of land continues to grow.
Complicating the issue further, many Boeung Kak lake residents don’t possess legal titles to the land they occupy, but they say the government acknowledged their de facto ownership when it issued a book of family records. Authorities counter that the land was illegally occupied and that the family records were simply published to document the number of families living in the area.

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What Wot?

So it’s a crazy mixed up City, Phnom Penh, and with out any formal public transport it’s just a right royal mess. It’s a wonder that anyone gets to where they are going at all. Tuk Tuks (think scooter with trailer that seats 4 or 7 if your really trying) and motos( tuk tuk minus trailer) are the transportation of choice for Khmers and westies alike. These drivers, who have seemingly only one job to do, that is, get you where you want to go have no bloody idea where things are.

If you submit to the howling mob of drivers, they ask your destination, then you tell them, and they nod enthusiastically as if they know it, like its round the corner from where his mum lives. So you sling your bum on the back seat (normally an aftermarket seat bolted to the goods rack) and off you fang in generally in the wrong direction. After being here all of three weeks combined with my scout-fu, even I know enough to know when it’s the wrong direction. When I was first got here and less bald, I would wait a few blocks to see if he has chosen an alternate route, then stop the show to redirect things. Now I just yell at the driver to stop and try to correct him right away pointing the way I want to go.

Okay, I hear you, these fellas have a distinct disadvantage when hauling westies round. One, they don’t speak English as a native language (or at all, really). Two, the drivers probably are not frequenting the places that westies want to visit. You know the Gucci NGO-run cafes and fancy restaurants. Three, it seems that the Khmer people don’t use maps… ever…. That means, even if you are a well-prepared Westie with your handy map of the city, you could point to destinations and street names all day and it would not help your driver at all. They just dot read maps. So I use landmarks, Wots (temples) actually are the best I live near Wot Lanka, and every time I have told a Moto to drop me at Wot Lanka it hasn’t been an issue. So Wots are the way to go if you ask me, I like to call it Wot-Nav… One drawback,… they might think of me a churchy fellow :)

So how do you get where you are going? If you walk, be prepared to be addressed by every driver on the street. Hello, Sir. Where you go? You want motorbike, tuk tuk? I take you. Sir? Sir? It gets old really quickly, but you can’t blame the guy for wanting to make a dollar(it sure beats crubbing around in the rubbish). Most people smile and say “otay, akun” or “no thanks,” addressing each one individually. And others just completely ignoring them (except that you feel like a tool). My approach as been to look them in the eye and shake my head side to side gentle as if saying no, it works really well.

If you take a moto or a tuk tuk, do your best to watch for street signs and local landmarks (good luck, street signs are well-hidden), and don’t be afraid to shout directions or stop your driver. Luckily, sometimes, drivers will consult other drivers’ mid-journey to ask where a particular destination is. On occasion, this proves fruitful, but other times, the other driver will confidently send you in the wrong direction. By the way, no discount is given for a tuk tuk who lost his way. In fact, the driver may demand extra money for the roundabout journey, a trick cabbies have been using since the dawn of time. Try to explain that it isn’t your fault he did not know how to get there, and he will certainly pretend not to speak English.

Even if you know where you are going, getting there is the really mental part. Talking to the other volunteers, sitting in the carriage of a tuk tuk, bouncy as it is (worst shocks in town) feels relatively safe compared to clinging to the rear handle of a moto who keep from hitting the pavement. The Moto option is a good one for me, its fun. In Phnom Penh traffic, these guys rarely get up above 40kmh. that’s a good thing with 90cc moto-scooter encumbered with a 100kg 6’4” Aussie acting as a wind scoop I would not expect more. However when in Cambodia, and do as the Cambodians do (you have the same life expectancy as a Khmer). The only think that I don’t like being on the back of the moto is the lack of autonomy.

So I settled on a bicycle, $30 from the local market and you get a re-sprayed old clunker straight from the scrap heap in china. I pimped my ride with an extra long seat pole and long handlebars, fully sick! I generally keep up with most of the motos, and often have the odd giggle from moto riders and I look like a dill warring my motorcycle helmet. But damn do I have a lot of fun. And I’m Dutch, I mean that in two ways; one, it’s in my blood to ride a bike, 2; it saves me a fortune on transport costs.

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Water water everywhere…

… yet not a drop to drink….
It is astonishing that in a city as small like Phnom Penh, there are at least 100+ different types of bottled water to choose from! making them more prevalent than black (4WD) lexus-es (or is that Lexi…) I mean there is few things better in life than independent choice! right? This is the basis of our capitalistic society …mmm… Looking at which water companies have the best quality. Only one third have actually any water quality certification (and most of these seem to be bogus). You can seriously buy a different kind every day!

Manufacturing bottled water in Cambodia is pretty much the one of the best business around, (other than mobile phones and Micro finance :) … and Lexus Dealerships… )There is hardly any regulation, regarding water quality and none that’s enforced. So the consumer just has to make sure that the water looks clear, then get some bottles made just like everyone else, and make up a company name, a pithy slogan, fake some purification standards on the label and you’re away! also you can just switch Company names often, maybe even for every production sequence. or just borrow someone else’s

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Poverty in Cambodia

Well its rife! due to years of civil war and corruption within the government. Forced evictions also have had an impact on the numbers of families living on the streets, and you see them everywhere. Most Westies (travelers, Volunteers and other Expats) give a few coins to beggars, or shout a street urchin a free meal. I always seem to be an arsh@le to most of these people because I don’t do this(I’ve had the odd filthy look as I tell a cute kid begging in a cafe to rack off). I prefer to try to be helpful to locals, to pay a little above the odds for services and products, but still within the reasonable price range (probably inflating prices :) ).

I had a long conversation with a well meaning tourist after getting a filthy look from her. I explained that giving money is kind and helpful, but some say that the best way to help ease poverty in Cambodia and to develop a deep sense of satisfaction as well as getting to experience more of the “real” Cambodia may be through volunteering or donations to reputable charities operating in Cambodia either before, during or after her time here. (trying not to sound self righteous about the whole volunteering thing)

in saying that the whole business of helping the Cambodians is starting to grate on me. Since there are so many NGOs and charity organizations here, some people say that these good intentioned people are not actually helping the people in the long run. To be so dependant on foreign aid may have a negative effect on the people’s own sense of empowerment and in turn passively waiting for help and handouts. I am still trying to measure the effect of this one.

So in the mean time, where ever I go I try to make sure that the place is locally run and the money I spend is going to the people who need it most desperately and not wealthy foreign entities. Unfortunately between all the Chinese Koreans and other western expats its pretty hard to do this in Phnom Penh. but I’ll keep on trying. :)

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