It’s been a turbulent year for the Kingdom of Cambodia, with the fallout from last years contentious election still playing out in both the countries courts and in the various diplomatic circles of Phnom Penh. With a government intent on moving further away, both politically and economically, from it’s traditional partners of America and Europe to the rapidly expanding Chinese.
Not wanting to state the obvious but arriving in the country after my last visit in the ‘coolest’ month of January this year, the hot season was in full swing. I have lived in Asia twice during the April to June period and I can easily say this was by the hottest I had experienced. With the hours of 11am till 3pm becoming almost unbearable to be wandering around the city. With most seeking refuge in the cities Malls and bars, the streets were mostly deserted between those times.
The hot weather, of course, meant an increased need for electricity with the cities supplies reaching breaking point regularly. Power outages became an almost daily occurrence with alternating sides of the street’s businesses and homes losing power, some for hours at a time. No electricity meant no internet access and for those who work online (like myself) the inability to access emails became a real issue. Although for future reference there is a row of bars located on 104 Street next, that run on the same electric line as the Phnom Penh Post Office. Meaning under the essential services act power must be kept and hence was immune to the electrical outages, with wifi easily accessible.
Speaking a few in the know businessmen I was told the constant power outages, was in fact due to an overreliance Cambodia has on HydroPower Damns along the Mekong Delta, with low rainfall effect the water flow.
Referring to the World Bank reported conducted in 2018 stated nearly two-thirds of Cambodia’s current electric supply is derived from HydroPower. Whilst it is also true that there has been low rainfall over the past year what was not spoken about is the huge increase in other countries now too damning the same river.
The most prominent of newly constructed damns recently being opened upstream in Laos. Constructed by the China North Industries Group Corporation Limited, this is a case study of the massive damning operations currently occurring along the river. The exact figures on Chinese built dam capacity along the Mekong are near impossible to know, as currently, such data is deemed a state secret. Although many believe the Chinese Government is quietly amassing vast quantities of fresh water. By damning large portions of the river running through their own territory and providing massive invest in the sections that run through the other five nations of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam.
Another factor to note was the serious increase in traffic with a tuk-tuk from the airport to my hotel (located in the central area of 130 Street) taking over an hour. Most of the journey being stuck behind heavy trucks and buses making a very unpleasant trip.
Summarising my week in Phnom Penh I have to say the heat, traffic and electrical outages were by far the worst I have experienced. These factors at first can be shaken off with a welcome to Asia, but to be honest, after a while they do take there toll. That said exploring the plethora of bars and discovering new street food is always a highlight of visiting the city and something I will always come back for.
A few photos from Phnom Penh
Early morning Phnom Penh at the intersection of 19 Street and 136 Street. There has been an explosion over the last few years in the increase of Indian style tuk-tuk (that can be seen on the left-hand side of the picture) replacing the more traditional style wooden cart. Personly with the large increase in traffic around Phnom Penh, the smaller and more mobile carts are much faster through traffic and many are being fitted with an inbuilt GPS that have allowed ride-hailing companies such as Grab and PassApp order and cashless payments available.
Food cart on the sidewalk in central Phnom Penh – young man selling the Khmer classic Lod Cha (stir-fried noodles) for $1USD, best with a few 50cent Cambodian drafts beers in the many surrounding bars.
The juxtaposition of two monks walking past the infamous Corner Bar on 136 Street the whilst may no longer be the place to be, has always been a stalwart of the streetscape. Daytime does not do the building justice is much more impressive at night when the neon lights are in full display. There were reports a German jumped to his death from the third-floor balcony last year, with many of the girl working in the bars convinced his ghost was still haunting the street.
Last week I reported on the historic connection of the Thai Cambodian Rail Crossing, with both leaders meeting for some cross border friendship. Well, it seems trains and shaking hands has caught on, and now the Malaysians want in too. With both Malay and Thai authorities hoping to revive train service between the towns of Sungai Kolok and Kelantan, in the hope of improving Thai-Malaysian connectivity. In was last in 1954, the State Railway of Thailand and the Federated Malay States Railways signed a joint train service treaty that covered service between Sungai Kolok and Tumpat. However, the service was halted around two decades ago due to the route being used for smuggling both goods and people between the two countries.
Due to a massive global backlash, Bruni has announced it will not follow with the draconian style punishment of ‘death by stoning’ for sodomy. However, those found guilty will still be punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah on Sunday extended a moratorium on all death penalty offenses to cover the new legislation.
In traffic that I was actually stuck in this week, Myanmar’s de facto leader and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni. Aung San Suu Kyi is currently on a two-country visit that also included China to attend the Second Belt and Road Forum, was her first to Cambodia since she was installed as de facto leader of Myanmar following an election victory by her National League for Democracy (NLD), putting the Southeast Asian state back to civilian control following decades of military rule.
The Week That Was:
The Hi-So community of Bangkok was sent into meltdown this week when the both the Royal Coronation and the Royal Gazette reporting the weeding of 40-year-old Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya to the 66-year-old king. Although she had been in the public eye for about three years, there has been little official information released about her and the news was a surprise to many Thais. The two reportedly met on a Thai Airways flight when she was working as a flight attendant for the carrier.
The once in a generation Royal coronation was held over the weekend, with sights that truly did revert back to a bygone era. After becoming crown prince and official heir to the throne in 1972. King Vajiralongkorn will now be known as Rama X of the Chakri dynasty. The iconic picture of the King Vajiralongkorn being handed the 7.3kg (16lbs) Great Crown of Victory, which he placed on his head will go down in Thai history.
Whilst the King’s ceremony may have looked from centuries ago his daughters took a much more new age feel to the even. With Princess Ubolratana, posting a series of beaming selfies throughout the day and Princess Sirivannavari, posting studio photos of herself wearing an elegant golden traditional dress for the ceremonies on Facebook.
As fitting with traditional coronation practice the King has issued royal pardons effective this week with those who receive pardons; include convicts in confinement, offenders performing public service instead of fines, those on probation, inmates with a year or less remaining on their sentence, or with serious disabilities and illnesses. For many, a royal pardon is the only hope from quite frankly the miserable existence of life in a Thai jail.
High profile pardons include the activist, widely known as Pai Dao Din, will be due for release on June 19 after he served a jail term of two years and six months for lese majeste and computer crime. Also, the Five leaders of the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy will have sentences commuted.
News from the ground is that old Bangkok literally came to a standstill with huge portraits of King Vajiralongkorn being seen from many buildings after it was made mandatory for state offices to erect them in the weeks leading up to the celebration. Civil servants were also asked to wear yellow – the colour associated with the king. Many ordinary Thais have also been noted wearing yellow to show their loyalty to the monarch.
Although however much the Royal PR machine attempts to spin their new monarch, with reports a majority of the attendees wearing yellow shirts and waving Thai national flags were in fact hired for the event. It will be near impossible for King Vajiralongkorn to be afforded the goodwill and affection that was given to the previous King Bhumibol Adulyadej with many predicting he will be the last of the great monarchs to command such reverence.
Another topic of discussion amongst foreigners has been the ascension of the second born son, over his firstborn daughter. Conducting some research the reason is both complex and simple:
Under the current constitution, Thailand can have a king or queen can be the head of the state, with the constitution stating that “when the king passed without appointing any heir, the privy council holds the duty to suggest the name of a prince or princess to replace the king”. Then the parliament will discuss and decide who would be invited to wear the crown before issuing the official invitation for the prince or princess to access the throne. There will not be the above process if the passed king had appointed an heir.
In case of Thailand, King Bhumibol had appointed Prince Vajiralongkorn as an heir (Crown Prince) while he also promoted Princess Sirindhorn (his 2nd oldest daughter) to hold the special title that is almost equal to the title of the Crown Prince. The reason for the promotion was stated that “the king has only one son and if something happend to the prince, the princess needs to take the prince’s duty”. Noted that the oldest daughter of the king has resigned from her title, so the 2nd daughter is holding the title.
Coverage wise the coronation seemingly went off without a hitch, however, there was some controversy with the BBC’s feed of the coronation being suspended with a ‘we will be back shortly’ image broadcast on their screens. The BBC has been subject to Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws and has been at odds when in 2016 Thailand opened an investigation into the BBC’s local language service for alleged defamation. Blocking access to an online profile of the country’s new king, less than a week after he succeeded to the throne. The biography was published on Friday by BBC Thai a day after King Maha Vajiralongkorn accepted the title following the death of his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, on 13 October.
The coronation ended on Monday with a public holiday being called to commemorate the occasion and the King granting a public audience on the balcony of the Grand Palace, with later engagements granted to an audience to international diplomats.
The Week Ahead:
Next week I will be reporting on my trip to Sihanoukville, albeit a short one what I found I can only say the few hours I spent in the city was even too long.
Harrison White can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org