The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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Fiction by Zane Zeehan
Continued from last month. A cabinet meeting discusses
how to deal with the countries rising debt proble m.
“ Yes, tourism. Tourists. Strange as it may seem, this could be
the solution to all of our problems. Tourism has the potential to
make a significant boost to national GDP, and in so doing to
kick-start a large and sustainable concurrent increase in overall
government revenue at all levels. I say, bring it on.
“ One thing: at ASEAN meetings,
there seems to be a general consensus that the future of Asian
tourism lies in Asian tourists. I am
not sure that I completely agree.
Let’s examine this so-called
“Asian” tourist phenomenon in
more detail. When we say Asia,
where do we mean? Japan? Sure,
it has the highest per capita income in the region, but annual
vacation time runs at a measly two
weeks, and Cambodia has to compete against the likes of Hawaii,
Guam, Fiji, and the Great Barrier
Reef in Australia. Two weeks in
Sihanoukville, or two weeks in
Waikiki? For a salaryman, that
decision is a no-brainer. In addition, the population of Japan is
forecast to decline from 125 million to 85 million over the next
fifty years, with 40% aged over
65. That does not sound much like a growth demographic for inbound tourism to me.
“ South Korea? Geographically, the Philippines is closer. It’s
pretty hard to compete with 8000 islands, even if the Pinoys are
an acquired taste and Manila is a total cesspit. Koreans also
work their asses off. Leisure is not a concept they understand. A
Korean deli in New York opens at 5am, closes at 2am, and in
between the owner takes care of the books, restocks the shelves,
and deals with outstanding supplier invoices. Sometimes he
even has a chance to take a crap. And you want this guy to
spend two thousand bucks flying to Cambodia on a vacation?
You’ve been eating too many extra-happy pizzas. Forget it. The
only vacation this guy is ever gonna get is when he’s horizontal
in the Brooklyn morgue.
“ China? A lot gets said about China, much of it nonsense. The
problem is, one billion Chinese all take a holiday at exactly the
same time. It’s pure madness. If that wasn’t enough, respected
hedge fund guru
Jim Chanos says China is the biggest bubble in history. Chanos
is a smart guy. He blew the whistle on Enron and made a ton for
his investors shorting the stock. If and when the China bubble
does pop, the aftershocks are gonna be truly earth shattering. A
vacation will be the very last thing on any Chinaman’s mind.
They’ll be too busy trying to get their money out of their collapsed banks. Forget China for now.
“ Nope, what we need more of is barang tourists. Sure, we have
Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields. But how many times does a
person go to see Angkor Wat? Once, maybe twice, and after that
it’s off to Ko Samui to lie on the beach for a month. Only two
places in Asia have truly mastered the art of getting the maximum number of in-bound high-spending Western tourists and
extracting an impressive amount of moolah from them all year
round. Bali is one, and the other is our big neighbor, Thailand.
“ Yup, when it comes to maximizing tourist revenues and generating repeat visits, these guys are the pros. The question is, how are
they doing it? What’s their secret? The only way to find out was
to send one of our best operatives undercover to Thailand on a
fact-gathering mission. I am proud to report that the mission was a
success, and that we now have a handle on just how those canny
Thais have been able to get it right for so many years tourismwise and make themselves rich and
modern in the process. ”
“ Why study tourism in Thailand and
not on Bali? ”
“ Simple answer. Thailand is closer.
Plus, our budget didn’t allow for a
round trip, two hop, Air Asia flight
from PP to Denpasar via KL. Also, we
needed to keep our operative’s mind
clear for his mission. Air Asia flight
attendants wear their skirts so tight
it’s impossible for a straight male to
survive a flight without growing a
massively visible boner. It was far
easier and cheaper all round to put
Bumoumprik, our zealous operative,
into a shared silver ‘92 Camry with
eight other passengers bound for
Poipet. He was then instructed to
hitchhike to Bangkok to further conserve funds for his actual research
mission.
“ This he did. What a true hero. Anybody who successfully hitchhikes in Thailand deserves a medal.
Bum arrived on the outskirts of Bangkok six hours later after a
long series of rides on trucks and in the back of speeding pickups.
He was able to board a non-aircon bus heading toward Banglamphu, but he unfortunately did not hop off in time, thus overshooting his destination and ending up lost in Thonburi. No matter, our
intrepid operative now displayed real nous by stripping down to
his jockey shorts and swimming back across the Chao Praya river
to emerge dripping wet near the Phra Artit express boat pier. Narrowly escaping being decapitated by an express riverboat captained by a maniacal Thai, Bum crawled out of the river, shaken,
stirred, but very much alive and kicking, exhilarated at having
arrived safely in the heaving center of this legendary Asian hypermetropolis. Let’s face it, Bangkok leaves PP for dead in the urban
excitement stakes. The city is twenty-first century megaurbanization on steroids.
“ And get this. Whilst swimming across the river, Bum had managed to catch a large fish with his bare hands! This tasty free protein, teamed with a five-baht slab of sticky rice purchased from a
handy Isaan foodstall, was his supper that night. Again, what initiative! Gentleman, this guy makes me proud to be a Khmer. Bum
celebrated his arrival with a ten-baht bottle of Lipo energy drink
from a 7-11 on Phra Artit Road, then decided to begin his research
in earnest by heading directly for Khao San Road, the most colorful and happening backpacker destination in the known cosmos.
But in which direction was it?
“ Bum’s keen Khmer sense of smell soon detected the unmistakeable fragrance of a sizzling banana pancake. Additional aromas of
egg and Nutella were next identified. This could mean only one
thing: backpacker central! Following his nose, Bum meandered
down a series of narrow subsoi’s, passing cheap, cheerful guesthouses, numerous foot massage parlors, Indian tailor shops, an
unshaven, bare-chested, drunk and
homeless older farang sleeping in a
gutter clutching an empty Beer
Chang bottle, and many other
strange sights. In fact, poor Bum
was suffering total sensory overload. Hey, we all remember our
first trip to Bangkok. Love it or
hate it, it’s a city that demands
constant attention.
“ Bum was fascinated. And then he arrived on the
Khao San Road itself. The first
thing he noticed was a police station on the corner. Very smart, he
conceded. These Thais know what they are doing. Farang mean
money, money brings crime, and crime signals opportunity for
crafty Thai cops to get their share. Here was one reason for
Thailand’s prosperity right under his nose. Bum eased further
into the street. A food cart sold falafel in pita bread for fifty
baht. Bum had never eaten a falafel sandwich in his life and he
was not about to start now. Fifty baht? What a bloody rip-off!
He could get two bowls of noodles with roast pork for that sum
only a hundred metres away. Cheap this crazy backpacker street
was not.
“ Up ahead was a cart displaying trays of deep-fried and edible
insects. Bum had nothing against the critters, and had in fact
done his part in reducing their population by chomping down on
their crunchy carcasses on odd occasions when hunger pangs
surfaced. Bum also spotted a sign on the cart depicting an image
of a camera. The sign stated: 20 B. Twenty baht to take a photo
of some greasy dead insects? Those slippery Thais were at it
again, brazenly ripping off the very people whose decades of
holiday visits were responsible for much of their current affluence. Shallow ungrateful bastards. They deserved a good hard
kicking. Bum recalled an old Khmer adage: never trust a Thai.
Ancient wisdom indeed.
“ There was no stopping Bum now. His eyes and brain eagerly
absorbed anything and everything. Thai ladyboys mingled with
dreadlocked backpackers returning from the Full Moon party on
Ko Pha-ngan, Isaan ladies created fake pad thai from vomitinducing greasy pre-fried rice noodles that only a clueless backpacker would eat, babelicious 18 year old Swedish girls were
having their hair beaded and braided, Thai Rastafarians were
selling pirated CDs and knock-off T-shirts bearing witty slogans
such as Ipood, microskirted girls were offering crappy cocktails
in plastic cups from numerous outdoor bars including a Kombi
van that had been cleverly sliced in half. What a wild scene! It
was too much. Just how much cheesy existential craziness could
be crammed into one short city street? Answer: a shitload plus.
“ But Bum had already detected a common theme running up,
down, and along this entire street, in fact, around this whole
neighborhood. Everywhere he looked, some Thai, somehow,
was making money!
“ And here, the entire Thai secret of success was at last revealed: Give the tourists what they want! The answer was so
unbelievably simple only a genius could have discovered it.
Everything was available - for a price. A foot massage? 220
baht please. A Whopper meal at Burger King? That’ll be 199
baht. A bucket of Mekong whiskey, Red Bull & Coke? 180
baht. A bus/ferry combo deal to Ko Tao? 750 baht. A blowjob
from a ladyboy with silicone tits you could stack bricks on?
Negotiable, but starting at 1000-1500 baht and ending at whatever cash was in your wallet or hotel room plus your laptop and
cellphone.
“ Gentleman, did I mention that Bum was one of our finest operatives? Let us review the status of the mission so far. After
only about two hours in Bangkok, and
spending rather less than six dollars in
total since leaving Phnom Penh by
Camry at 6 am that morning, our guy
has already cracked the secret of a
multi-billion dollar tourism industry
stretching back at least three decades.
A team of top management consultants
including Harvard and Yale MBAs
from either McKinsey’s or Bain & Co.
and charging in excess of eight hundred and fifty dollars an hour per person could not have done the job any
better or provided a more insightful
report. We just saved ourselves about
two million dollars. ”
“ Way to go! ” “ Awesome! ” “ Holy freaking Buddha! ” “ Cool!
” Accolades rang around the room.
“ Yes, I’m going to be nominating Bum for a pay rise at his next
annual review. Something in the order of an increase in salary
from the present $120 to about $135 per month, and perhaps a $30
bonus extra. I do believe in encouraging and rewarding excellence.
“ Okay, back to the report. You may not believe this, but it gets
even better. Somebody said cool. Now get ready for subzero,
dudes. Having learnt all there was to learn about the Khao San
Road area, Bum saved more money by getting a free night’s kip at
a large temple complex on Soi Rambutri. He arose at dawn and
scored a free bowl of leftover jackfruit curry and rice from the
friendly monks, then returned to the river to take a bath and rinse
his shirt clean. Freshened up, he was ready to face a new challenge. An hour and two bus rides later, Bum found himself outside the Eastern Bus Terminal at Ekamai. Here he invested 120
baht in a bus ticket to Pattaya. His aim: to conduct further tourism
research, with an emphasis on nightlife. Somehow, he had a
hunch he was heading for the right place. ”
“ Why didn’t he hitchhike to Pattaya and save four bucks? Sukhumvit Road runs all the way there. ”
“ Hey, c’mon, guys, let’s give poor Bum a break here, huh! It was
hot season. He was bushed, okay!
“ If Khao San Road had freaked Bum out, Pattaya blew him away
completely. Here an entire resort city had been constructed for the
sole purpose of separating a farang tourist from his hard-earned
money as rapidly and as painlessly as possible. Bum sensed there
was much to be learned here. If Khao San Road was junior high,
then this place was a full-blown university. The intensity of the
activity was staggering. Beer bar followed beer bar endlessly,
with an occasional go-go bar thrown in for variety. Convenience
stores were everywhere. Convenience! The word seemed to sum
up the whole Thai tourism experience. It was too easy to spend
money here. Money seemed to flow like a river out of farang
pockets and into some oily Thai’s. Bum was grudgingly impressed. The Thais were smooth operators, no doubt about it.
They were coining it. No wonder they were always smiling. Smiling? More like a sly, cunning leer. We know what you want,
buddy, the smile seemed to say. You want a ladyboy’s! Am I
right?
“ And, you know something, that’s ok! This is Thailand! Anything’s ok here, as long as the baht keeps flowing in a one-way
direction. The ATM’s over that a way. All cards accepted. You
can take out up to 20,000 baht a day, too. You wouldn’t want to
run short of cash, now, would you? Because then the fun stops. It
screeches to a screaming halt. Fun City? Sure - if you’ve got the
cash. It’s all about the cash.”
“ Actually, in that sense, Pattaya wasn’t really so different from
anywhere else, including Phnom Penh. No money equals no
honey, especially at some bars around town. We all understand
that equation. But that didn’t mean our operative
couldn’t wander around and experience the sheer
variety of human entertainment on offer. Being a
voyeur was free. Bum found a shady spot along the
Beach Road and sat down under a coconut palm to
enjoy some cooling sea breezes. This sure beat being in muggy, polluted, overcrowded Bangkok.
Sand, sea, and sin seemed to go together like a Jack
Daniel’s, ice, and Coke.
“ Speaking of drinks, Bum realized he needed to
rehydrate. A green coconut quenched his thirst and
the provided spoon allowed easy access to the tasty
jelly inside. A meal and a drink for only twenty
baht - hey, this place was value! Bum gained a
fresh perspective on Sin City. There were deals
around if you knew where to look. Maybe this town
of ill-repute wasn’t so bad after all. Only time
would tell.
“ For want of anything better to do, Bum followed a
party of fat Russians. Russia had suffered multiple
famines over the past century, but you wouldn’t know it looking at these specimens. They had haunches as wide as the side
of a beer truck. The Russians wobbled into a supermarket
called Tops. Bum tagged behind. Arctic air-conditioning
greeted him. Obviously this country had a cheap and reliable
electricity supply. The nexus was clear: tourists provide hard
currency, hard currency buys abundant cheap natural gas, gas
spins turbines, and bounteous gigawatts of constant power run
cooling systems and light up the night with the titillating neon
signs of an infinity of go-go bars, so enticing myriad foolish
tourists into splurging even more cash on beers, bar fines, and
pricey lady drinks. It was a devilishly clever scheme for economic enrichment, and there was something very Thai about it.
In fact, Bum was beginning to see Thailand less in terms of a
geopolitical entity and more as some kind of a gigantic confidence trick, a casino where the odds are incessantly and forever
stacked against the punters. The house never loses. It was serious food for thought. Could Cambodia one day emulate Thailand and hit the big time too?
“ By now Bum had noticed that Tops had a lot of promotional
offers. Like a pack of jelly donuts, five for 30 baht. Five donuts
for only a buck? That was a gimme. A cute young checkout girl
in a becoming uniform took Bum’s baht with a wai. That donut
pack would do Bum for both afternoon tea and dinner.
What a groovy deal.
“ And, let’s stop with these pesky quotation marks. They suck
gorilla butts. I’m gonna relate the rest of Bum’s groovy adventures in real-time format. Okay, buckle up, here we go:
Bum spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring Pattaya, moseying in and out of shopping malls and department stores, marvelling at the sheer number of Western fast food outlets in town.
Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, the mighty McDonald’s, Swensen’s, and more, all doing their utmost to destroy the health of the
hapless human inhabitants of this planet with their fatty, thrombosis-inducing fare. Even Starbucks and its clones had arrived in
force. The main daylight activity in Pattaya basically involved
hanging out and killing time until the night appeared. There was
no point in going against the flow, so Bum joined the parade, merrily murdering the hours until sundown when the real action
started.
Finally, the night came. And now Pattaya really exploded into life.
Seeing was believing.
Bum rapidly became a believer.
Continued next month
C
ambodia, which held the rotating chair of Asean in
2012, hosted international fora in November which
President Obama attended, but even though he and Hun
Sen held a one-on-one meeting and stood next to each other for
group photos, no picture of the PM was posted on the White
House web site and there were no smiles between the two,
Obama maintaining a cool distance. This was meant to show
America’s displeasure at many of
the things happening in Cambodia. The Asean meetings also
came after both the European
Parliament and Australian Senate
called Cambodia to account for
the direction it’s been taking regarding human rights and fair
elections.
The PM’s response was that they
were misinformed and the media
was exaggerating. That, of
course, is what a lot of politicians
would say under fire, and while
there has clearly been some serious backsliding on Cambodia’s part, I agree that some of the
complaints do seem to be out of proportion to reality. Nonetheless, since Cambodia gets a substantial part – 10%/$300 million
- of its annual budget from the international community, it
would behoove the PM to take the complaints more seriously.
The complainants are asking that the country hold free and fair
elections, that an independent election commission be appointed, that political prisoners be released, that Sam Rainsy,
now in self-imposed exile to avoid a long prison term, be allowed to take part in the upcoming national election and that
the country put an end to land grabbing and displacement.
Independent election commissions are an obvious starting-point
for honest elections. It’s too bad that’s not the way things are
done in the US. In 2000, Republican Katherine Harris of Florida was both Secretary of State, the office that runs elections,
and GW Bush’s campaign manager. She did everything in her
power to skew the vote in Bush’s favor. An clean election
would have easily made Gore the winner. Similarly, four years
later Ohio Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell
simultaneously ran the Ohio election and Bush’s campaign
there. He used every dirty trick in the book to throw the election to Bush. So yes it’d be great if Cambodia had an independent electoral commission, but the US is hardly one to complain
until it gets its own house in order.
Independence of the electoral commission is far preferred but
what’s important is the outcome; that is, a free and fair election. I’ve now lived in Cambodia for 11 years and been around
for four, maybe five national elections. I don’t remember one
declared not free and fair by international observers, so I’m not
sure where that complaint is coming from. There have been
minor problems but nothing that would’ve countered the wide
lead the PM’s Cambodian People’s Party had in every election,
at least in the last 11 years. The CPP has consistently received
a minimum 55% of the vote.
Elections in Cambodia are held on two levels. The national
parliament and the communes, of which there are about 1700
that cover the entire country, both urban and rural. Phnom
Penh, for instance, has about 90 communes. Almost all of the
communes are run by the CPP as a result of efficient gerryman-
dering. In case you’re not aware of the genesis of that term, the
word is a combination of Gerry, the name of a governor of Massachusetts in the early 19th century and a salamander, since the electoral districts Gerry designed to favor his own party looked like
salamanders.
The CPP also has overwhelming control of the parliament for that
reason and a divided opposition –
for a long time there were two
opposition parties - which makes
it easier for the ruling party to
keep control. A similar situation
exists in the UK: The party with
the most seats in parliament almost never has a majority of the
vote… Margaret Thatcher never
got past about 40% of the vote.
Still, even with some level of
intimidation, a partisan electoral
commission and control of most
of the media by the ruling party,
the opposition received about
45% of the vote in the last election and, at least as far as I remember, it was deemed free and fair by international observers.
The government’s case against Sam Rainsy revolves around two
factors. As part of a campaign ploy he pulled up temporary border
posts which the government and Vietnam were using to try to
demarcate the border between the two; thus destroying public
property. As part of that action he accused the PM of selling out
Cambodia, essentially treason. For that he received an 11 year
sentence. That was way out of line in a Western perspective, but
accusing the PM of treason was beyond the pale in a Cambodian
context. In fact, the PM and his party are regularly criticized by
the opposition.
Sam Rainsy has never come close to challenging the PM in the
polls and personally I’m happy about that. In general he’s a bit
more conservative on social issues and rails against corruption.
On the latter, he might be better than the CPP on tackling that
issue, but that’s hard to say since Cambodia is hopelessly corrupt,
scoring 157 out of 174 countries on Transparency International’s
corruption perception index, and so probably everybody is in the
game. On the former, I’m personally not fond of conservatism in
any form. The real problem I have with him is that his strongest
campaign rhetoric involves stoking antagonism against the one
million or so ethnic Vietnamese living here, regularly using a derogatory term for them. Pulling up the border posts was part of
that push against the Viets.
After all the terrible changes that Cambodia has gone through the
last thing it needs is ethnic strife. In general terms, the Khmer are
largely distrustful and disdainful of the Vietnamese in spite of
them driving Pol Pot out of power and saving possibly hundreds
of thousands of lives in the process. At the same time, on a personal level they have no problem getting along with the Vietnamese, making friends and just being the pleasant, easy going people
that they are.
While ethnic tension and violence and even insurrection can be
found in many of the surrounding countries, there is absolutely
none of that in Cambodia. The country has about 500,000 Muslims, but there isn’t the barest hint that they are the least bit dissatisfied with their lives here.
Cambodia is the easily the most welcoming of foreigners in the
region and maybe the world. Anybody from anywhere in the
world who can make their way to Cambodia can stay as long as
they like and if they wish, open a business with no interference
from the government (baksheesh excluded) or need of a local
partner. Moreover, in a poll last year, 78% said they thought
their country was going in the right direction: By any standard
that is an amazing number.
The 400,000 people who’ve been displaced over the past 10
years by urban development, dam building and rural land concessions probably aren’t so happy about the country’s direction,
but overall Cambodia is growing economically at a good clip,
with new construction everywhere including impressive infrastructure improvements and a lot of people’s lives are being enhanced.
A lot of urban development in Phnom Penh has been happening
on filled-in lakes and wetlands and on formerly public park
spaces, all of which I consider a terrible mistake, almost a crime
against the people. Nevertheless, I don’t doubt that the government honestly sees that development as a plus for the city.
There’s unfortunately very little transparency in how those projects are planned or who the land is sold off to, and precious little
citizen input. For a country that’s relatively new to democracy,
that’s discouraging but not surprising.
There are a lot of dams being built to supply electricity that is
currently sorely inadequate, with blackouts now happening on a
daily basis in the capital. A large majority of power now consumed in Cambodia comes from neighbors Vietnam and Thailand. Hydropower has a great many advantages over burning
fossil fuels, which the country is also pursuing in the form of
new coal plants in Sihanoukville. Hydropower does have a great
drawback here in that little can be produced in dry season when
it’s hottest and thus when it’s needed most. It also is displacing
large numbers of people and in some cases is or will be causing
serious damage to the country’s fisheries – Cambodians get 80%
of their protein from fish.
Most of those drawbacks could be ameliorated by building dams
mostly in the mountains and possibly making them smaller. Most
river fish are found in slow moving flatland rivers, very few in
fast moving mountain streams, so, for instance, the Kamchey
dam in the mountains near Kampot will have little impact on
local fisheries. There also are few people who need to be relocated from mountainous areas. Nonetheless, a lot of countries
have in the past and/or are still in the present making the same
(what I consider to be) mistakes, so, once again, it’s difficult to
fault the government in that regard.
Some 10% of Cambodia’s total land mass has been leased to
local and foreign companies for industrial agro-plantations and
giant tourist projects. Concessions have been granted in national
parks and wildlife preserves as well as degraded forest land. In
many if not most cases that has involved displacement of local
villagers. While most people being displaced receive some type
of compensation, much of it is inadequate. Considering how endemic corruption is here, it seems likely many public officials
involved in the granting of concessions are filling their pockets,
still, as in the above, I don’t doubt they also believe it’s good for
the country. In a few years time Cambodia will be producing a
lot of rubber, sugar cane, acacia and palm oil from the many
plantations now under development. I would have done it differently, distributing land to thousands of villagers instead of a few
large corporations, as better for the country in the long run. And
for sure, I would never trash national parks and wildlife refuges
with plantations.
In almost all of the above cases, people affected have demonstrated and protested to varying degrees of success. The government is not keen on the above stemming in part from a protest
that went violent back in 2002 with disastrous consequences for
the country. In that event a rumor, that was later learned to be
unfounded, circulated that a popular young Thai soap actress
had claimed Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand and made other
disparaging remarks about Khmer people. What started as a protest mostly involving college students resulted in the torching of
several Thai owned businesses as well as the Thai embassy. In
the latter case the Thai ambassador had to flee over a wall to
save himself. The government was forced to pay damages of
about $30 million and offer profuse apologies. While many Thai
companies have important stakes in the economy, and Thailand
was funding Cambodian roads near the border at the time of the
riots, it’s true that many Thais look down on the Khmer.
After that embarrassing event the government has tried to put a
lid on protests and demonstrations with varying degrees of success. In spite of their efforts at suppression, protests are a regular
occurrence as are work actions by unionized garment workers. It
is not that different in America where people wishing to demonstrate at political party conventions or international meetings are
shunted off to ‘free speech zones’ which often wind up to be
paved areas surrounded by chain-link fences under freeways and
far from the venues, thus far from where anybody can see them
or hear of their grievances. In other cases, peaceful protesters
have been pepper sprayed just for the fun of it.
Finally, one of the international community’s demands is the
freeing of political prisoners. Last October Mam Sonando, 72year-old owner of one of the few independent radio stations and
frequent government critic was given a 20 year sentence on fabricated charges: supposedly he tried to organize 400 village
families, who were protesting the loss of their land to a concession, to secede from Cambodia and form their own nation. Fortunately the local foreign language press – we have two English
language dailies here - and international broadcasters like the
BBC, which has an FM outlet in Phnom Penh, have been left to
do their work unhindered. Also last fall about 20 people protesting the loss of their land in an urban development were given 2
year sentences, but then were released a month or so later. Locking up dissident voices is a very worrying trend; maybe they are
trying to emulate China, their great friend and benefactor where
lots of people are routinely put away for simple political advocacy. Still, the most political prisoners anybody can come up
with in Cambodia is 13. Even one is too much, but compare that
with Burma where even after all the thousands of prisoners
who’ve been released, there are still, by various estimates between 125 and 1000 political prisoners who remain behind bars.
The Western media usually categorize the PM as a strongman,
sometimes a dictator. A dictator he is not as they maintain control through violence, incarceration and murder of opponents.
The strongman appellation is fair. Some years ago he decided
that betting on sports was bad for the country and literally within
two days, hundreds of legal betting parlors were shut down and
thousands lost their jobs. Also a while ago, a property owner
wanted to develop a large lot in a valuable and central location
that was occupied by an NGO serving homeless kids. Though
not part of any legal requirement, he offered to build a new facility for the NGO outside the city’s central core, but the facility,
which has a lot of powerful friends, objected saying they needed
to be where the kids were. The PM intervened on the NGOs side
and the property owner had to eat his development plans.
Cambodia is hardly a model democracy, but in spite of some
serious backsliding and worrying developments, it’s still in
pretty good shape. The country’s development plans, which are
causing much displacement and misery, and which I personally
find very troubling, are well within conventional development
models; in other words, heartily approved by the business/
financial community. While the international political community needs to keep up the human rights pressure, Cambodia’s
situation needs to be kept in perspective.
Putting the squeeze on
We all understand the need to
maximize display area for
goods in a supermarket.
Pencil however seems to have
forgotten the need for accessibility.
They recently reduced space
between the shelves to just over
the width of a shopping trolley.
So if anyone is meandering
aimlessly down aisles (as they
often do here) your way is
blocked. After a couple of long
detours whilst shopping to get
round them it becomes bloody
annoying.
End of the world with no water or power!
Well we didn’t go out with a
bang so now you can pay all
those bills you were saving up
just in case it all ended!
The Mayans got it wrong and
so it seems the local rumour
mill.
For the past few weeks the
grape vine has been suggesting
that for vague reasons there
would be no water and/or
power on the 23rd to the 26th
in Phnom Penh.
Oh well another one to put in
the archives along with mung
beans, holy cows and Thai soap
stars!
License drive
The boys from the Ministry of
Tourism seem to have been
doing the rounds recently.
Several bars have had visits but
the outrageous sums the demand are ludicrous. The correct
“price” as it were including
“fees” should be around $150
for renewal and a tad more if
it’s your first time!
KRT publicly exposes itself
on Xmas eve!
Was it intentional or accidental?
As it slowly lumbers on spending millions on its experts. The
KRT allowed access to
download an official 36 page
PDF report into Case 003 outlining the alleged crimes committed by Meas Muth and Sou
Met during the Pol Pot regime.
Parts of the document had got
out in 2011 and the names of
the suspects was widely
known.
The cockup only lasted a very
short time until it was spotted.
Some KRT watchers (they
probably like 5 day test cricket
also) downloaded the document and re posted it on the
web only to be told shortly
after to take it down or face
court action immediately
(probably the fastest the KRT
have done anything in years).
We are pretty sure it will resurface in the public domain
anonymously in the near future.
Case 003 is the most contentious case to be looked into
with vociferous opposition
from the powers that be. As it
probably could be rather damaging to certain officials here
when put under public scrutiny
and investigated thoroughly.
Thanks for the prezzie guys!
Xmas madness
Why early evening on Xmas
day did this city suffer huge
traffic congestion! It seems
Xmas may soon be adopted as
another national holiday here!
Later on it was still busier
than most weekends on the
streets.
It was nice to see plenty if local
santas flying around town on
their motos bobble hats wobbling in the wind.
The only drawback was a lot of
them appeared totally drunk
with some maintaining that local
tradition of flying down a main
road on the wrong side with no
lights on!
Way to go boys. That Lexus
front grille is just waiting to give
you a big smacker for Xmas.
Internet closure
Yet again the authorities bumble
their way into controversy.
Ministry of Post and Telecommunications issued a circular
banning internet cafes within
500 meters of schools or educational buildings due to fears of
porn etc corrupting the young.
What they hadn’t worked out
was this would effectively close
every internet café in downtown
Phnom Penh.
There was a huge outcry and the
Ministry has backtracked saying
it will be working with the cafes
not closing them.
Oops – if I have any faithful readers, my apologies, I know I
said I would hit 172 st this month, but things did not work out
as planned. At great personal effort and expense, I travelled to
far flung foreign lands to explore brave new worlds and report
to Bayon’s readers. After all the bars, all the liver damage, and
the untold hours trying to pretend that I am more charming, it
was made clear to me that this was just not going to do. My
herculean efforts were meaningless and I was ordered back to
Phnom Penh to spread some wealth at local establishments.
Facing an unrealistic deadline and threat of physical violence
from the publisher, I flew home and forced myself to return to
the bars in time to meet the publication deadline. But next
month, I really will get to 172 st...really...
With the limited time available, I made a quick run last night
to 136 st, I figured there must be at least a few bars that I had
not been drunk at lately. I somehow decided that I should start
at the river and move west. Unfortunately the first bar at the
river was Paddy Rice, and, I wrote about that last month. So
new plan, start at the second bar from the river and we moved
on to Pussycat Bar. This place was originally an expansion of
Rose Bar, but I was not able to find out if it still had the same
owners. It certainly did not appear so– whereas Rose is known
for blaring its music so loud you can barely order a drink, this
bar was much more sedate. Actually it was almost soporific...
the music was at a good level, but there seemed to be no energy
in the bar and it was fairly lightly staffed. Not a bad place for a
quiet game of pool and one could probably have a lot of fun in
the right circumstances, but I think I prefer something between
these two extremes. Of course, on another night, this place
could be the party of the block – YMMV.
Next door is Dream 2. Actually a pretty good vibe here. On
the night I showed up the staff was cheerful and joking about.
The music was sort of a Latino/Caribbean mix. Not saying
these were my favourite beats, but it was a nice break from the
endless wave of Gangnan style in almost every other bar I have
been in over the last few weeks. Since I seem almost obligated
to make one critique, the place feels cluttered to the point where
we felt there was little room for customers. However I would
definitely make a return trip.
Of course, being at Dream 2 made me want to see Dream, a
much larger bar on 118 st, with an outdoor patio area and a pool
table on a mezzanine floor. Unfortunately, despite being more
spacious, I was much happier with the sequel. So really not a
lot to say other than the tv sets were crystal clear and made
watching HBO a real treat. If you want a laugh, look up the
pithy review of this bar on Foursquare. To be clear, that reviewer’s opinion is not shared by this investigator, I did not
mind this place I was just not thrilled. However the online review made me laugh.
Back to 136 st and the next bar on the list, Oasis. The bamboo shack thing is distinctive at least. This has always been a
friendly bar with staff that seems to appreciate the difference
between being personable and being annoying. We had a few
staff members come around to keep us entertained and the music was at a reasonable level. It was one of the busier of the
bars we went through that night and for good reason.
Next up was Lemon. This was a very pleasant surprise. I
came here when it opened and had not been back since as generally when I walk by the staff looked like they were sleeping on
the doorstep. On this night, there were enthusiastic sounding
welcomes and we decided to indulge. Definitely the hit of the
night. The place was busy with 5 or 6 customers playing pool
and the bar itself fairly full. But there were still lots of places to
sit. Actually everything seemed to click – place felt roomy,
music was low enough to allow conversation and the staff were
friendly while still allowing me to chat with my friend. The
specials list was a bit confusing, but we eventually sorted it out.
Buy one get one free Angkor drafts all the time plus there are
cheap drinks every day from 5 to 9 and all day on Sunday. Now
you don’t have to try to figure this out with the staff.
About now I realized it was about time to escape 136 st.
Tpub is right next to Heart of Darkness. Personally I like the
roof top best – quiet, a pool table and a great view of who is out
at the mall. However there is also outdoor seating, a semiprivate mezzanine and a very snug and claustrophobic downstairs bar area. A good place to drop by if you are looking to
find a companion to go dancing with and are scared to leave 51
st. There is a Tpub 2 on 104 st (or at least there was a few
weeks ago), but I don’t have time to go there before this is due.
Last stop for the night, Gpub. This is the new late late late
hot spot. It is in the middle of Golden Sorya Mall and can’t be
missed if you walk through the mall from Heart to Pontoon. I
am not even sure when it opens or if it closes – hours seem a bit
confused, but this place is really rocking as Pontoon and Heart
start to shut down and keep going until the wee hours. An
eclectic mix of people hanging out and usually having a good
time that spills into the hallways. If you are up late enough,
worth dropping by.
That about wraps it for another month – next month I really
really will try to get to 172 st (holiday schedule permitting of
course).
Are the NRA’s Horse-Head-in-the-Bed Days Over?
2012 will be remembered as the year the nation stood up to bullies–including the bullies dictating national gun policy. Perhaps
the only good thing to come out of the Newtown massacre is it
pried lawmakers out of the NRA’s cold, dead hands.
Actually, the NRA’s power has been waning since at least 2005
when it declared a boycott against ConocoPhillips, a major Oklahoma employer with 3,000 workers, for blocking its bring-yourgun-to-work efforts. “ConocoPhillips went to federal court to
attack your freedom,” thundered Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive
vice president and CEO. “We’re going to make ConocoPhillips
the example of what happens when a corporation takes away your
Second Amendment rights. If you are a corporation that’s antigun, anti-gun owner, or anti-Second Amendment, we will spare
no effort or expense to work against you, to protect the rights of
your law-abiding employees.”
Unfortunately the boycott fizzled and the only “example” made
was that the NRA is all hat and no horse.
The bring-your-gun-to-work bullying did not even fly in the
“Gunshine State,” Florida. “Possession of firearms in the workplace or on company property is strictly prohibited,” said Bruce
Middlebrooks of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, which has
7,500 employees in the Jacksonville area. “We’re not against the
Second Amendment, but guns are inappropriate in our workplaces
and workplaces include parking lots,” said Randy Miller, a lobbyist for the Florida Retail Federation which represents 12,000 businesses in the state.
Bring-your-gun-to-work efforts were so over the top, with hundreds a year already killed in workplace shootings, the American
Bar Association challenged its legality.
Next, the paranoids at the NRA decided that the United Nations
2006 small arms conference, designed to coordinate individual
nations’ policies toward arms shipments and sales, was a plot to
grab US weapons. It even believed the gun grab was going to
happen on the Fourth of July. (The press had a lot of fun with the
idea of welterweight UN bureaucrats wrestling gun owners’
weapons away.) The NRA actually staged onsite demonstrations
at UN headquarters, under the battle cry “Support Our Human
Right To Guns and Self-Defense, and Protest the Gun Control
Schemes of the United Nations.” Yes, “human right.”
Many remember the NRA’s mid-1990′s depiction of Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents as gun grabbing “jack booted thugs.” It cost them the membership of George
H. W. Bush and other prominent members. “To attack Secret Service agents or ATF people or any government law enforcement
people as…wanting to attack law-abiding citizens is a vicious
slander on good people,” wrote Bush in his resignation letter.
But fewer know about the NRA’s 2006 Freedom in Peril brochure, leaked to the press, that depicted gangs invading homes
and flashing gang signs, hairy-legged female animal rights activists and the press as a giant vulture clutching a microphone. The
illustrated brochure was a veritable NRA enemies list in which
Katie Couric, Rosie O’Donnell, George Soros, Michael Moore,
Nancy Pelosi, Sens. John Kerry, Edward M. Kennedy, Hillary
Clinton and Dianne Feinstein, York City Mayor Michael R.
Bloomberg, the New Orleans police, the United Nations and illegal aliens were demonized.
“Second Amendment freedom today stands naked in the path of a
marching axis of adversaries far darker and more dangerous than
gun owners have ever known,” says the 27-page brochure.
“Acting alone and in shadowy coalitions, these enemies of free-
dom are preparing for a profound and foreboding confrontation
in which they will not make the mistakes of their predecessors.”
George Soros is “the Hungarian-born billionaire bankroller of a
globalist jihad against firearm freedom” who has been “trying to
revoke the Bill of Rights through his checkbook,” they say.
Like bullies everywhere, the NRA’s aggression comes from excessive fear. As Ring of Fire talk show host Mike Papantonio
says, maybe they need a “shot of testosterone.” Every day millions of people, including children, old people and 110 pound
women get to work without the help of firearms. Yet the tough
guys at the NRA are afraid to go to work and into other gun free
zones unarmed. “People could drive on their highways with the
guns, but they couldn’t stop anywhere,” sniffles LaPierre about
gun free zones. “In effect, you’re nullifying the right to carry.”
It is amazing politicians have allowed a few paranoid, aging
white bullies to dictate a national gun policy that kills six-yearolds in school. It is just as amazing that voters have let them.
Gun History where even Texas once supported Gun Regulations.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education
at New York University.
Yes, the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the
“right to bear arms.” But if that means individual citizens – as
opposed to state militias – can carry firearms anywhere they
want, someone forgot to tell our 19th-century forebears. As law
professor Adam Winkler has found, 10 states passed laws in the
1800s barring the possession of concealed weapons.
One of them was Texas, the lodestar of the gun-rights movement today. But as the Lone Star governor said in 1893, “the
mission of the concealed weapon is murder. To check it is the
duty of every self-respecting, law abiding man.”
Founded in 1871 as a hunting organization, the National Rifle
Association supported waiting periods for handgun buyers and a
wide array of other state restrictions. It also backed the first major federal gun regulation, the 1934 National Firearms Act,
which was upheld by the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision five years later.
As US Solicitor General Robert Jackson told the Court, the
Second Amendment did not protect the right of individuals to
possess guns for “private purposes.” Instead, it was “restricted to
the keeping and bearing of arms by the people collectively for
their common defense and security,” wrote Jackson, who would
join the Court himself in 1941.
Only in the 1970s would the NRA and conservatives start to
argue that the Second Amendment guaranteed individual gun
possession. Piggybacking cleverly on the minority and women’s
rights revolutions, the NRA claimed that gun owners, too, were
endowed with “rights” that were protected by the Constitution.
The group also created a giant lobbying and publicity apparatus
to spread this new doctrine. Reflecting on the NRA's politicking,
Chief Justice Warren Burger said that the Second Amendment
“has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud – I
repeat the word ‘fraud’ – on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
Today, millions of Americans take it for granted that the Constitution protects individual gun rights. So do their legislatures
and courts, which have discovered a meaning in the Second
Amendment that earlier generations never imagined.
But one cannot say that our foreparents intended to give everyone the right to own a gun and carry it wherever they wished.
That’s a fraud, to borrow Justice Burger’s phrase. I repeat the
word: fraud. Saying it over and over again won’t make it true.
Reagan on Gun Control....
“This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety ...
While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop
all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the
supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.”
“I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for
sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. But I do
believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon
or needed for defense of a home.”
“Certain forms of ammunition have no legitimate sporting,
recreational, or self-defense use and thus should be prohibited.”
“With the right to bear arms comes a great responsibility to use
caution and common sense on handgun purchases.”
“Every year, an average of 9,200 Americans are murdered by
handguns, according to Department of Justice statistics. This
does not include suicides or the tens of thousands of robberies,
rapes and assaults committed with handguns. This level of violence must be stopped.”
“I think maybe there could be some restrictions that there had
to be a certain amount of training taken.”
“Well, I think there has to be some [gun] control.”
The Fiscal Cliff is a Diversion
The “fiscal cliff” is another hoax designed to shift the attention of
policymakers, the media, and the attentive public, if any, from
huge problems to small ones.
The fiscal cliff is automatic spending cuts and tax increases in
order to reduce the deficit by an insignificant amount over ten
years if Congress takes no action itself to cut spending and to
raise taxes. In other words, the “fiscal cliff” is going to happen
either way.
The problem from the standpoint of conventional economics with
the fiscal cliff is that it amounts to a double-barrel dose of austerity delivered to a faltering and recessionary economy. Ever since
John Maynard Keynes, most economists have understood that
austerity is not the answer to recession or depression.
Regardless, the fiscal cliff is about small numbers compared to
the Derivatives Tsunami or to bond and dollar market bubbles.
The fiscal cliff requires that the federal government cut spending
by $1.3 trillion over ten years. More simply, just divide $1.3 trillion by ten and it comes to $130 billion per year. This can be
done by simply taking a three month vacation each year from
Washington’s wars.
The Derivatives Tsunami and the bond and dollar bubbles are of
a different magnitude.
Last June according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s fourth quarter report for 2011, about 95% of the $230
trillion in US derivative exposure was held by four US financial
institutions: JP Morgan Chase Bank, Bank of America, Citibank,
and Goldman Sachs.
Prior to financial deregulation, (the repeal of the Glass-Steagall
Act and the non-regulation of derivatives) –a joint achievement
of the Clinton administration and the Republican Party–Chase,
Bank of America, and Citibank were commercial banks that took
depositors’ deposits and made loans to businesses and consumers
and purchased Treasury bonds with any extra reserves.
With the repeal of Glass-Steagall these honest commercial banks
became gambling casinos, like the investment bank, Goldman
Sachs, betting not only their own money but also depositors
money on uncovered bets on interest rates, currency exchange
rates, mortgages, and prices of commodities and equities.
These bets soon exceeded many times not only US GDP but
world GDP. Indeed, the gambling bets of JP Morgan Chase
Bank alone are equal to world Gross Domestic Product.
According to the first quarter 2012 report from the Comptroller
The exposure of the 4 US banks is many multiples of their assets
or of their risk capital.
The Derivatives Tsunami is the result of the handful of fools and
corrupt public officials who deregulated the US financial system.
Today merely four US banks have derivative exposure equal to
3.3 times world Gross Domestic Product. When I was a US
Treasury official, such a possibility would have been considered
beyond science fiction.
Hopefully, much of the derivative exposure somehow nets out so
that the net exposure, while still larger than many countries’
GDPs, is not in the hundreds of trillions of dollars. Still, the
situation is so worrying to the Federal Reserve that after announcing a third round of quantitative easing, that is, printing
money to buy bonds–both US Treasuries and the banks’ bad assets–the Fed has announced it is doubling its QE 3 purchases.
In other words, the entire economic policy of the United States is
dedicated to saving four banks that are too large to fail. The
banks are too large to fail only because deregulation permitted
financial concentration, as if the Anti-Trust Act did not exist.
The purpose of QE is to keep the prices of debt, which supports
the banks’ bets, high. The Federal Reserve claims that the purpose of its massive monetization of debt is to help the economy
with low interest rates and increased home sales. But the Fed’s
policy is hurting the economy by depriving savers, especially the
retired, of interest income, forcing them to draw down their savings. Real interest rates paid on CDs, money market funds, and
bonds are lower than the rate of inflation.
Moreover, the money that the Fed is creating in order to bail out
the four banks is making holders of dollars, both at home and
abroad, nervous. If investors desert the dollar and its exchange
value falls, the price of the financial instruments that the Fed’s
purchases are supporting will also fall, and interest rates will rise.
The only way the Fed could support the dollar would be to raise
interest rates. In that event, bond holders would be wiped out,
and interest charges on the debt would explode.
With such a catastrophe following the previous stock and real
estate collapses, the remains of people’s wealth would be wiped
out. Investors have been deserting equities for “safe” US Treasuries. This is why the Fed can keep bond prices so high that the
real interest rate is negative.
The hyped threat of the fiscal cliff is immaterial compared to the
threat of the derivatives overhang and the threat to the US dollar
and bond market of the Federal Reserve’s commitment to save
four US banks.
Once again, the media and its master, the US government, hide
the real issues behind a fake one. The fiscal cliff has become the
way for the Republicans to save the country from bankruptcy by
destroying the social safety net put in place during the 1930s,
supplemented by Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” in the 60s.
Now that there are no jobs, now that real family incomes have
been stagnant or declining for decades, and now that wealth and
income have been concentrated in few hands is the time, Republicans say, to destroy the social safety net so that we don’t fall
over the fiscal cliff.
In human history, such a policy usually produces revolt and revolution, which is what the US so desperately needs.
Perhaps our stupid and corrupt policymakers are doing us a favor
after all.
BITS FROM THE BEACH
A Japanese company have decided to upgrade and expand
the existing water delivery system in Sihanoukville making a
right mess in the process. Hopefully once all the pipes are
installed they will go and re tarmac all the areas that they have
dug up.
We live in hope?
Otres estuary now has a market happening every
Saturday .there is live music, stalls selling freshly made food
others selling souvenirs etc. You can fish in the man made lake
or the natural river. At least go and check it out. You can get a
bus from outside led zephyr if you are un sure of the way.
Unfortunately another expat has been involved in another
motor bike accident. The unfortunate expat was knocked off her
bike by a marauding car, her helmet was not secured came off
and she hit her head on the hard floor. She survived but another
warning not only make sure you wear a helmet but make sure
you do it up properly.
An eldely English woman who had lived here for quite some
time has passed away. Carol could always be seen walking the
streets of Snooky but more recently she had been sick. She had
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“We accept anybody’s ravings—we often print them!”
just returned from PP and after a problem tying to find a Guest
House who would take her in due to her sickness some kind
hearted GH owner took her in. Her illness got the better of her
and she passed away this past month.
New Guest house and bar /restaurant located at the Pims
plaza. The restaurant has some good quality food with nearly all
the staff being white faces, that ensures the service and
consistency is of the best in Snooky.
The restaurant is called Smokys and the guest hose simply
Ochheuteal guest house.
Be careful where you park your car! Especially the new
concrete part of Beach road.
A European tourist parked his car outside a GH on this road
then caught a boat to one of the Islands. The irate GH owner
using his own truck, dragged the parked car away from his GH
and left it in the middle of the road for the day until the owner
returned from his idyllic day out.
Any one who has some spare land in the area might think
about setting up some kind of car park in the area for customers
who are heading to the Islands.
On this same stretch of road The Blue Pumpkin have set up
another coffee bakery shop with some nice cakes home made ice
cream and sorbets. They offer some breakfast but more the
continental choice.
Down at the Golden Lions Plaza Kenny’s bar which used to
be Paddy’s has now changed again now it is called Sophies
(nothing to do with the previous Sophies in PP before you mind
starts working overtime). Apparently an English guy has bought
it for his daughter? Kenny has fallen in love with a Kiwi girl and
gone to live over there. Good luck to all.
A Khmer girl who worked at Fortuna Casino had acid poured
over her on Ochheuteal beach recently. A jealous boyfriend was
thought to be the culprit. The girl was rushed to hospital in PP
but alas she died as a result of her injuries.
How many massage spa choices are there now in Snooky? A
lot and the newest one to open is a Vietnamese German couple
called Lion Spa. With a new twist to a massage/spa they also
rent out Motos and trucks.
Rumour has it that the authorities may be extending the park
area on Otres beach once they finish the present area. This could
mean more businesses will have to go. As it goes down here it
may happen or it might be a couple of years as they rarely give
any notice as to their real intentions until they turn up to evict
you! Hopefully it’s all bullshit as there is only so much boring
empty park space needed!
So come on down the weather is sunny breezy and cooler
now. Perfect for sunbathing.
That’s all for another year. Happy New Year to you all.
Vietnam has restrictions on larger capacity bike with the only
real exception being the Minsk. Simple and basic they have been
the mainstay of many foreigners trips around Vietnam
ooking up onto the balcony at the three rusting examples
of Russian motorcycle engineering, abandoned and forgotten, most people would say rightly so, it would be easy
to think of calling the scrap dealer. There was however something about these bikes, predominantly the fact they’re not scooters no doubt, but something nonetheless that called out to that
inner mechanic in us and said let’s bring these bikes back to life.
They belonged to our landlord so with
much confidence in our ability to be dedicated and hardworking we assured him
we’d do all the work and he’d pay the
costs; sweet.
The most motivated of us dived in
with aplomb stripping the bike down to the
frame, and even going as far as sanding
down the gas tank ready for spraying, no
easy task. I sat back and learnt from his
mistakes, stripping the paint could be done
by someone else. We then all decided that
the refurbishing of an engine was no job for
a bunch of complete novices with a few
screwdrivers and wrenches. We strapped
the first engine to the most rubbish of our
scooters, and left off on a Sunday drive that
would eventually get us to a mechanic in
the center of town, with a halfway beer
stop on route as the engine was a little
heavy making the distastefully inadequate
80cc scooter laborious to drive, thirsty
work.
We pushed ourselves hard and got the next 2 bikes to
the mechanics in the backpacker area over the next to weekends
and they were actually able to drive back under their own power,
at least on the second attempt, the first having been a frustrating
affair trying to get to grips with a very clunky gearbox in the
early evening (read congested as [email protected]&) traffic. Halfway back on
that journey having crawled through the grueling traffic with but
inches between a horrendous density of scooters all jockeying for
position in the unending jam there was a glimmer of open road. I
dropped the clutch as I found third gear for the first time, and
some noisy spluttering acceleration, unfortunately this was
quickly followed by loud revving and rapid deceleration. The
engine was still revving, the gears would change, but all forward
motion was lost if in gear; the chain had snapped, back to the
mechanic.
The next time it did make it back, the engine was working well, but there were all kinds of creaking sounds, wobbles,
vibrations, and a distinct lack of breaking ability. So upon the
next Sunday, our Minsk workday, we decided to attempt solving
one of the wobbles by replacing the front wheel bearings. We had
a motivational smoke and then quickly dismantled the front
wheel. We ended up with a total of four wheel bearings, but
where had they all come from? This jigsaw puzzle went over
until the next week when still unable to solve it we let a local
scooter mechanic take a look. He managed to get it on and spinning freely, but was it straight, the first test drive proved that it
was not, so the next week the wheel bearing, and wheel were
L
scootered into town, and 5 minutes later, using a tool we didn’t
have, the bearing was properly installed.
It had taken a month then to replace the wheel bearing
on this Minsk, the first was now just a heap of pieces, and we
were getting more eager to ride the machines as the rainy season
was petering out. Luckily we’d heard of another mechanic, the
head of the Saigon Minsk club, who had a large and professional
looking shop in the center behind the zoo. We headed down there
on a rare midweek mission fearing the shop may not be open on
Sunday. Big bikes galore were parked in and around this garage
with mechanics working in an apparently organized manner. We
organized a price for a full service and respray, and were told
they’d be ready in a week.
A week later and we get to set eyes on our new machines, and holy smoke those rusted decrepit hulks had been
transformed into classic motorbikes. We’d asked for army green,
and the mechanic had chosen the perfect color that lent the bikes
a classic old world charm making me think of Indiana Jones escaping on a stolen Nazi bike. A test drive this time was fun, fun,
fun getting to grips with the power bands of the engine and getting it up to some faster speeds. We paid up, set off on the journey home, but it couldn’t be that easy. The clutch cable stretched
and it was near impossible to avoid stalling at every stop, and if
there’s one thing that’s frequent in HCMC it’s stopping in traffic.
Some bikes have some adjustment up near the gear lever, not the
minsk you have to have tools to adjust it, I didn’t, back to the
mechanic, a simple fix, and then home.
The third Minsk was delivered to the mechanic in
pieces, and a week later we had our collection complete, three
Minsk motorbikes in working order, not perfect, still with their
little niggles, but running well enough. I was lucky enough to
have the best engine, it makes a lovely 2 stroke racket now, but
the electrics were poorly done with the indicators beginning to
fall off after the first ride. Still we’d been successful so we decided to take the whole lot out together, and our landlord would
come along on his nicely restored Vespa. We got the bikes outside, and began the process of kicking them into action, the
neighbours didn’t like that. One Minsk is loud, a squadron of em
is thunderous, nevertheless we roared off, what’s the point off
having a collection of bikes if no one notices? Saigon traffic is
notoriously annoying, but not on this Sunday afternoon, with 4
bikes roaring down the street the normally aggressive scooters
with their motogp decals were making room wondering what the
hell was coming from behind. At one point we were able to go 4
abreast, and yes the Minsk was a truly enjoyable head turning
cruiser.
You can drive the Minsk in a
couple of different ways. In the power
band it’s noisy with that traditional 2
stroke whine and splutter that lets everyone know you’re coming. You can also
choose to keep it just out of the power
band where it will happily chug along
with the engine just gently turning over
for a quite comfy cruise, albeit with little
direct power available without dropping
a gear. Driving down the main strip of
bars we all dropped down into second to
create a cacophony of whine and splutter. I’m sure there were a few tuts and
grumbles, but wealso got a lot of compliments when stopped at the bars.
Showy cruise completed the
Minsk needed a proper run. One of the
guys had already taken theirs to the
coast, and with a friend arriving on a
cruise ship I got the perfect excuse to do
the same. Heading out the back of Saigon it was time for my first experience
of an Asian motorway. Going out of the
city the bikes were segregated from the larger vehicles, often by
concrete bollards, making it an easy start, but once we joined the
Reunification Highway it was three lanes of madness with bikes
allowed to use the first lane and the slip lane beside it. Trucks
and buses had no qualms about darting into these lanes either
especially for daring overtaking manouvers around the wrong
side of other trucks. You definitely have to keep your wits about
you. The Minsk was performing well though it was quite punchy
when you got the acceleration right, and would happily cruise at
80km/h, and keep creeping faster if you held the throttle in just
the right place. I thought the navigating was going pretty well
too, until arriving at a critical intersection I took what I thought
was the right turn, and headed down a motorway that soon came
to a dead end, wtf?
First coffee break time. The coffee was good, but I was
lamenting the fact that neither of our phones would get a GPS
lock. Still on leaving the staff simply pointed us round the corner
and we were on track. We passed the next 30k with just the one
near miss of a truck swerving into the slip lane to overtake. It
would have taken us clean out had I not been able to make an
evasive maneuver. He got a long and clear one finger salute as
we pulled around him. Towards the end of the 30k the engine
seemed a little rough so we stopped for soup, and deciding we
were close enough, a beer. The bike was happy with its rest, as I
was with the beer. We were approaching our destination as arse
ache began to set in so it was almost infuriating trying to find a
resort that google maps had listed on the wrong side of the road.
Feeling the stress it was great to wash it away in the pool of the
resort when we finally found it, then head out to the ship where
we were treated and pampered with fine food, cocktails, UK
beers, and Cuban cigars until I could take it no more. The mighty
Minsk had succeeded in its first road trip, may there be many
more.
The Hobbit:
An Unexpected Journey
A
welcome albeit less magical return to Middle Earth,
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" kicks off a
likely nine-hour cinematic trilogy based on J.R.R.
Tolkien's quite slim pre-"The Lord of the Rings" tome "The Hobbit". Like the books, this is a lighter and decidedly less emotional
journey - one with a more playful sensibility and quieter rewards
to yield.
This welcome dash of the whimsical is offset by the fact the
film is also considerably less efficient in its storytelling manner.
Repetitive and pointless action scenes fill out an already bloated
runtime, not an unusual problem for director Peter Jackson. His
remake of "King Kong" more than doubled the length of that
film's original, in the process adding almost a solid hour of CG
creature fights and escapades that had no bearing on the story
other than to pad it out. Some of it worked, most didn't.
"The Hobbit" thankfully doesn't suffer to the same degree,
mostly due to a more carefully crafted story. Concerns were
raised about how Jackson and his co-scribes were incorporating
elements from the appendices from "The Lord of the Rings" into
this film. It's hard to believe, but the film itself really only covers
the first six chapters of "The Hobbit" - about 100 pages in all.
Yet the big surprise is that much of the added material includes
many of my favorite scenes in the film.
One sequence has former "Doctor Who" star Sylvester McCoy
as the hippy wizard Radagast the Brown investigating a Necromancer who has taken up residence at the abandoned fortress of
Dol Guldur. Another is the meeting of the White Council which
sees four of Middle Earth's most famous faces discussing politics.
There's also a few throwbacks to the structure of "The Fellowship
of the Ring" be it the mid-point arrival at Rivendell, a distinct
Orc as this chapter's antagonist, and the final scene with the
dwarves looking into the distance at the mountain they are trying
to reach. Most of these scenes worked wonders and magically
transported me back to the Middle Earth of the former trilogy I
remember.
Yet these are only occasional stretches in a film that overstays
its welcome. Like 'Fellowship', this is essentially a road movie
with our heroes crossing the countryside to get to the other side
of the Misty Mountains (the 'Rings' sequels then took them south,
these ones will take them east). The stakes, the urgency and the
danger are considerably less though, which makes the overall
journey feel more slipshot and episodic in nature. Jackson's adaptation keeps the tone darker than the admittedly kid-friendly
novel, but even at its darkest points this never approaches the
more adult sensibility of the original trilogy.
There's a half-hour dinner scene at the start, a twenty minute
game of riddles with Gollum, and a whole hour in which our heroes outrun Orcs, fall down a shaft, outrun goblins, talk on a hillside, and hide in trees from Orcs. It's a movie that takes a good
amount of time to get going, and once it does it's not sure in
which direction to travel. A longer runtime would be justified if it
helped us get to know these characters better. However, all but
three of the dwarves remain fairly anonymous.
Those three are amongst the best things in the film though, not
surprising when you consider all three have years of British television experience under their belts. I've been a fan of Richard
Armitage for a while, especially during his days on the spy
thriller "Spooks," and here he brings a solid gravitas and regality
to the leader Thorin Oakenshield. James Nesbitt adds both mirth
and a warm earnestness to his strangely capped Bofur, making
the most of his few lines. Same with Ken Stott as the eldest
dwarf and sage advice giver. The other dwarves aren't bad, but
they are very much in the background here despite the long runtime.
This film however is all about Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen. The former is just a perfect fit, bringing his comic sensibility
to a part that has more warmth than some of his other roles in the
past. There's mini-arcs in play here, Bilbo's self-actualisation and
Thorin's ultimate acceptance of him, and Freeman pulls it off in a
believable and welcome manner. McKellen meanwhile just has a
ball, getting to do more than usual whilst having sly fun as the
more human and rascally 'Grey' version of Gandalf.
From a production value perspective, "The Hobbit" is exactly
what you'd expect. With basically all of the team from the original 'Rings' films back in place, this Middle Earth feels very much
like coming home. It's an earlier version, one not blanketed by a
feeling of impending doom and one more simple and magical in
its sensibility. As a result it's a little brighter, more colorful, and
sadly a bit more populated by computer generated creatures than
before.
There's less consistency overall. With a heavier reliance on
computer graphics, the results are surprisingly mixed. The sequences with both the cave trolls and Gollum look smashing, the
creature effects have a weight and quality to them that's actually
quite astonishing. Less effective are the Orcs and Goblins, with
both Azog the Defiler and the scrotum-chinned Goblin King
coming off very poorly. These stand out as otherwise the cinematography, the musical score, the digital landscapes, etc. are all
impressive and near or on par with the previous films.
The stupid decision was made to start the film with nearly ten
minutes of roller coaster-like swooping shots and narration. Nausea-inducing to those of us unfamiliar with the look, it really
seems as if the film is being played on fast forward.
The upside of this technology is that it solves almost all the
problems of 3D. Eye fatigue, ghosting, overly dark shots, etc. are
gone. It's also surprisingly good at giving more weight and believability to digital characters - Gollum for example really feels
as if he's a part of the actual scene being filmed rather than added
in later by digital wizards.
It does however show up the phoniness of filmmaking at times.
When the group is caught in a rainstorm, you can really tell it is
just people hosing them down from above. A flashback to the
dark history that Thorin shares with Azog gives us a big battle
sequence that looks almost entirely lifted from a "God of War"
video game.
Jackson is obviously trying to recapture the spirit of Middle
Earth with "The Hobbit" films, but this first chapter only succeeds at the challenge at certain moments. It's as polished as it
ever was, if not more so, but the approach of expanding out a
thin story rather than cutting back on a large one has resulted in a
film that's frustrating in its indulgences, its pacing, and its lack of
focus - especially in its early stages. Judicious self-criticism and
restraint are as much qualities of great filmmaking as ambition
and scope, and here they have not been obviously employed. A
great journey on par with the three previously films could've
been on offer. What we've got, though not in the same league, is
still a nice weekender away.
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