Modesty runs rampant in my health club’s locker room

MichelangeloDavidCensored_zps0bf756d0A stocky Asian  strode through the relatively empty locker room of my gym one afternoon not long ago.  He was nude.  Because of his nonchalance, I knew that he could not be from Cambodia.

At my former gym in the States, he would not have drawn a second glance. Few members were present at my current gym that time of day, and those changing clothes also paid no discernible attention.

But the locker room attendant certainly noticed.  A look of horror, or possibly disgust, crossed his countenance.

I asked him if the sight disturbed him. The memory of what he had just witnessed caused him to scowl deeply, making me wonder whether perhaps he was joking.

When I told him how it was at my old gym in New York, Continue reading

Efficient waste management, recycling elude Cambodia


These men and teenagers are not merely dumping trash into the truck. They are sorting it as well.

The problems that Phnom Penh faces with trash disposal are evident on virtually every corner.

Although there seem to be laws on the books mandating proper handling of recyclables and other commercial and residential waste, there appears to be virtually no enforcement.

Cintri — the company that enjoys a sweetheart contract in its monopoly for the collection of garbage in Phnom Penh — is pictured here with one of its green trucks.  You can see that the enterprise is no more exempt from overlooked child labor than are building contractors. You also can see in the photo below with one of the company’s yellow trucks that waste is separated by gloveless hands as the vehicles creep along the city’s blocks.

One of the best online sources of information that I have been able unearth on the local issue is called Urban Voice.  The blog post there may be two years old, but it is consistent with what I have observed as I dodge bicycles, motorcycles and cars while walking on sidewalks that are blocked by parked vehicles and are strewn with trash.  Consider this excerpt:

Some Phnom Penh residents are still unaware of the importance of packing and storing their waste properly. Typically, people pack all kinds of waste together in one plastic bag, making it difficult to separate for recycling and composting. In addition, a lot people keep their waste in front of their house at any time regardless of the waste collection schedule. If the schedule is missed, the waste is just left there unconditionally. Even worse, some people do not keep their waste in front of their house but instead choose to leave it on the street and other public spaces. This is normally seen during the night when large piles of garbage are put out on the street. And if that is not enough, there are waste scavengers who dig through garbage bags searching for recyclable items that can be sold.

The unnamed writer goes on to report the following:

In Phnom Penh city, it is not surprising to see flying plastic bags and other rubbish in public areas. Not everyone here in Phnom Penh actually throws trash in the rubbish bin. Despite the fact that rubbish bins are placed in most public places, people will just throw their rubbish anywhere they want. Some even throw trash from their cars or motorbikes while driving. Others leave it at the park or even right next to the rubbish bin but not in the bin. As a result, not all the waste is collected and cleared. This makes the charming city of Cambodia less beautiful and less healthy.

Because unseparated waste is burned at dump sites, the blog post continues, hazardous materials dangerously pollute the air, and organic matter that could otherwise be composted for farming goes up in flames.

A report by the Ministry of Environment earlier this year demonstrated how intractable the problem is.  It found a 10 per cent increase in the amount of waste generated between 2013 and 2014.

“While 60 to 80 per cent of trash in urban areas is collected, only 40 per cent is collected outside of towns,” according to a Phnom Penh Post article on the study.

Despite increasing amounts of waste being generated, an Okayama University report last March observes, the government focuses only on collection and dumping.  There is no treatment facility.



The report’s authors, Seng Bandith and Takeshi Fujiwara, refer to entrepreneurial souls who also profit, miserably, from trash collection.  They state that 300 scavengers may be recovering 607 tons of valuable materials each month, based on 2014 numbers.  (Whether that is a reliable number strikes me as debatable; it may be more or less, I think.)

recycle-9For the scavengers in the capital city and at dump sites, the work in most cases hardly provides enough money to eat.  In Phnom Penh, they are everywhere, sometimes even rummaging through bags of refuse wearing headlamps late at night and having their very young children in tow.

“Consequently,” the Urban Voice writer relates, “the garbage is scattered everywhere and it is very hard to collect.”


Waste clogs an open sewerage canal not far from a market.

Both that blog post and the report from Okayama University offer solutions to the trash problem, but it is hard to see any change in the foreseeable future.

Although the government announced last year that it would establish a $5 million fund to allow Cambodia’s 26 provinces and municipalities to take responsibility for waste management in their cities, it is questionable that it did so or that such a project had any effect, I think.

Last year, the Phnom Penh Post quoted reports as saying that the government could be forced to shell out more than $120 million to build new landfills over the next decade unless it invests in preventing Phnom Penh’s current site from reaching capacity.  You can imagine where the government apparently filed those reports.


 Japan stands in stark contrast to Cambodia.  The refuse above illustrates how serious the country is about separating and recycling, requiring all entities to sort plastics, burnables and metals at a minimum.

Also last year, according to the Post, the Ministry of Environment announced a five-year project to include “separating, recycling and transforming waste into gas and natural fertili[z]er for agricultural and industrial purposes in order to improve the living standard of people and reduce environment contamination.”  Any progress along those lines is not clear to me, notwithstanding optimistic promises and a local newspaper’s somnolent campaign to ameliorate the situation.

Change would involve utilizing substantial financial resources, which theoretically the government could prioritize.  More important, it would require a will to take action.  I have no reason to believe the will exists and that change, therefore, can happen in the near future.


Not the worst, but friends’ travel ordeal nears extreme


Up, up and away doesn’t quite describe my friends’ vacation saga.

Pat and Sandy much enjoyed their recent cruise, and then began their problems.  They didn’t suffer a hijacking or a deadly crash, but suffer they did on their way home to Australia from the Baltic states and the final leg of their cruise.

On their cruise to Amsterdam from Norway, the weather was bad and the sea so rough that the ship had to divert to Rotterdam.  So far, not so bad.  So far.
Wth minimal editing on my part, Pat gives the following account in a jet-lagged e-mail written in the middle of the night of one disastrous event after another, thankfully none involving violence:
Luckily, the ship supplied buses to the terminal in Amsterdam, but we lost nearly a whole day in Amsterdam.

Continue reading

I digress: Some Americans respond selfishly to election

american-flag-3Consider this post from an expat I do not know in response to a rant on Facebook today:

So happy I’m living in France. So happy I’m living in France. So happy I’m living in France.

Which of the four candidates I favor for U.S. president is beside the point of this post, but let me say that the foregoing quote is one of the milder reactions I have seen especially to the possibility of Donald Trump’s winning the election over Hillary Clinton.

Even as an expat myself, I confess to feeling holier than those who fantasize about leaving their country behind for what I contend is the wrong reason.  They despair of one candidate or another leading a nation of more a third of a billion persons and, not incidentally, the whole free world.  They seem to think that leaving will improve their lives . . . and theirs alone.

Those who talk about quitting the United States seem to overlook at least four things: Continue reading

Holiday unknown to me gives access to French Embassy


The imposing main building of the French Embassy greets visitors just inside the gate.

An annual series of events around the world under the umbrella of European Heritage Days had escaped me until this year, but last Saturday’s activities in Phnom Penh allowed me and hundreds of others to enjoy access inside some otherwise private international venues.

I learned about the possibility of seeing the French Embassy only the day before by reading a one-inch item in a local English-language daily.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything about also being able to tour the British ambassador’s residence, UNESCO offices and a restored colonial-era building where the high-end Van’s restaurant operates.  (I had dined expensively at the restaurant once and have felt no need to return.)

Still, visiting the French Embassy proved to be notable for Continue reading

Remarkable book set in India illuminates deprivation

An engrossing and enlightening book came to my attention a while back.  It was written by Katherine Boo, a longtime New Yorker writer whose prose is elegant and artful.

Behind the Beautiful ForeversHonored by a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, a National Magazine Award and a Pulitzer Prize, Boo had her book published in 2012.  I cannot recommend too highly Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity.

I have to say its ring of authenticity is a clarion invitation to understanding and empathizing with the poorest of the poor.  So compelling are the book’s descriptions that I felt as though I could smell the smells of a slum, taste the bitterness of injustice and feel the pain of deprivation on which Boo trains her attention.

Stupid me, either when I ordered Behind the Beautiful Forevers or got down my list of reading material, I forgot a key fact about the book until I arrived at Boo’s author’s note at the end.   Continue reading

The news in Cambodia gets more dispiriting every day

thumb_img_1058_1024As a former traditional print journalist, I cannot leave behind the urge to keep up with the news.  Consequently, I read online or on actual paper the three slim dailies published in English, presumably for expats.  

The Khmer Times, which I confess has shown modest improvement since its plagiarism scandal several months ago, is the one in which I have the least faith in having achieved an acceptable journalistic standard.  Rather, I tend to rely on the Cambodian Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, which do a pretty good job of reporting the news.

What I see virtually every day is stories about political corruption, traffic deaths, human rights abuses, sexual abuse, governmental misconduct and an extraordinarily high level of judicial malfeasance that boggles my mind. Continue reading