Coastal Cambodia at Risk?

Southwestern Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand has been gifted with white sand beaches, tropical islands, budding resorts, and provincial towns. It’s no surprise that tourists from all over the world are flocking here to sample these offerings, potentially promising a boom for the local economy. Cambodia desperately needs this but will it succeed at getting it? Unfortunately, I see some black clouds on the horizon threatening their dream.

This is Kep Beach.

Sun setting on Outres Beach 2.

One of the beautiful beaches on Rabbit Is. near Kep.

Found this fellow on the beach above.

Before I begin to figure out how Cambodia can possibly deal with those black clouds I see looming over it, I want to relate how my stay this past week at the Village of Outres between the beaches of Outres 1 and 2 reminded me so much of the ’60’s when the ‘hippies’ of that era began their search for their nirvana which would come to be an escape from the troubles they saw in their world around them. Down through the ages there have many idealists wanting to set up their utopias in order to live life the way in which they felt it should be lived not how their governments dictated. They wanted to live on the fringes like the ‘hippies’ and create their own perfect world. The problem is that most of them were out of sync with their times so their experiments usually failed. Those of us who were around in the ’60’s witnessed their demise when drugs took over their lives. Others just got disillusioned from trying to right the wrongs and gave it all up to go back to normal living. However, their movement and the ideas behind it weren’t a total failure because what they did accomplish was an awakening in many of us that our western society didn’t have all the answers on how our world should work.

You are probably wondering where I am going with this but bear with me. Since I arrived here three weeks ago, in what is now referred to as Coastal Cambodia… first in Kep, then a little inland to the old French provincial town of Kampot, and, finally, this week to Outres Beach 2 near Sihanoukville, the largest city in this tourist haven…. I have stumbled upon a community of sorts bearing an odd resemblance to the hippy communes.

Old French colonial home in Kep being restored to its former glory.

Street scene in Outres Village.

For the past week I have been calling a comfy enclave of bungalows called Om Home in Outres Village, my home. I couldn’t help noticing that the ex-pats and many of the backpackers here were dressing and living a life similar to our “hippies” of the ’60’s. They are mostly young people wearing weird clothing, maybe some facial jewellery, sporting long hair, dread locks, and beards, and definitely showing off bodies with lots of tattoos. There are a few older men and women interspersed in the group. This group of ex-pats, digital nomads, or barang as the locals call them may dress and lead a laid back life style reminiscent of the hippy era but the similarity ends there.

Some barang or young ex-pats.

Unlike our idealistic ‘hippies’ who were too far ahead of their time in their search for a better world, today’s young people are more practical and here just when Cambodia and the world needs them. Their goal is not to escape our imperfect world but to immerse themselves in it. They are not sitting around dreaming about what to do: they are endeavouring to do it. They are aware of what they are facing and open to changing with the times in order to carve out a life for themselves.

I joined a clean up crew who meet once a week to pick up garbage on the streets.

Plastic bottles are the only items being recycled.

This is a common site everywhere.

Two girls from England trying to clean up the beach following a full moon tide.

Someone tried to make a neat pile from the trash the tide brought in.

The Village of Outres has basically been created by the barang  over the past eight years. On my first visit back then, all that was here was a handful of thatched huts and small restaurants renting out beach chairs for the few tourists who wanted to escape the crowded beaches in Sihanoukville. Seeing an opportunity to use their entrepreneurship and creativity, adventurous barang began to open up guest houses, restaurants providing foods from around the world, yoga studios, arts and craft shops, and, of course, numerous Internet jobs which has earned them the title of ‘digital nomads’…people who can take their skills anywhere to make a living as long as they have a computer.

This $3 special with good coffee drew me in for breakfast. The owner is Italian.

Music is a huge part of the creative scene everywhere in town.

Cambodia has been the perfect place for them to do this with the government basically turning a blind eye to what they are doing… that is until the tourists starting arriving in larger numbers. The increase in the number of Chinese tourists has quickly caught the interest of the government and  the developers. The rising middle class in China wants to  see the world, and they have the money to do so but not in the style of the backpackers. They prefer five-star resorts, fine cuisine, and easy accessibility to all the hot spots, such as Siem Reap with its ruins from the ancient Khmer Kingdom of Angkor. Before this influx of tourists from China, it was almost a win/win situation for all sides as it brought money into the country’s coffers and provided much-needed jobs and business opportunities for the locals. However, the influx of the Chinese tourist is changing all of this.

This owner wants to sell his business before the invasion of the Chinese really begins.

You must have guessed by now the cause for the ‘black cloud’ hanging over this unfortunate country. In the past few years, rampant construction driven by Chinese millionaires has been changing the natural beauty of this coastal region to what is beginning to look like a garbage dump with a landscape dominated by cranes and high buildings.  This is particularly noticeable in and around Sihanoukville and gradually creeping into Kep and Kampot.

One of many new buildings being constructed in the Village.

Garbage is everywhere waiting for pick up to be taken somewhere?

Depending on who you talk to, there are various moves from China that are causing not only the ex-pats but the locals much concern. Fancy resorts are replacing the bamboo huts and little guest houses which were once affordable to the young backpackers and middle class tourists.

One of the 5 star resorts on Outres Beach 2.

As I mentioned, the new resorts are geared to cater to the emerging middle class of China, Russia, and more mature tourists from Europe who no longer want to backpack it. When the developers start drawing this kind of tourist then there’s always another money-maker to be considered…gambling! Rumour has it that when all the construction in Sihanoukville is completed, the city can then boast of over 40 casinos! Now you might think that all this will benefit the Cambodian people by providing them with those much-needed jobs making it all good, but you will be wrong!

A casino nearing completion atop Bokar Hill near Kampot.

Apparently the construction crews and eventually the operators of the resorts and casinos are being staffed by the Chinese. All of this is creating gate-like communities which could ultimately destroy the efforts of the young ex-pats and the locals here in the Village of Outres where they have been learning to work together to make their community more sustainable and peaceful. Many of them are outfitting their buildings with solar devices to heat their water and run their generators, which they often have to rely upon when their power is cut off by the construction sites. Moreover, many restaurants are offering organically grown foods on their menus. They are proud to claim that their village is a foodie’s haven with everything made from scratch.

This restaurant takes pride in using solar power and serving organically grown foods.

However, this could conceivably become a past dream with the impending Chinese invasion which right now weighs heavily on the mind of the locals and the ex-pats. To add further insult to injury, their invasion is being openly aided and abetted by the present government led by Hun Sen. You can read more about him and his government in my most recent post Cambodia – Past and Present.

Of course, he’s doing everything in his power to keep the status quo in this country which is to line his and his cronies’ pockets with cash. China has no problem with this way of doing business for it’s the custom in this part of the world. They appear to be out to get whatever they need to take care of their aging population by building comfortable apartments for retirement, and for the younger generation, who are eager to escape to beaches, those five-star resorts. Then there awaits them the forests, the water from the Mekong River, and the minerals that Cambodia can still claim to have but are rapidly disappearing. Granted some of this money will filter down to the people. The infrastructure that the government has put millions of dollars into, enabling the people to travel around more easily and quickly is a plus for those who can afford motorbikes and fancy cars but what about those many poor people who can’t?

Cambodia is still a corrupt country. The only winners who can come out on top to improve their lives are those with the money. If you have that, you can buy anything you want including a job, but it you don’t, you can’t go too far.

I know Cambodia isn’t the only developing country facing this problem…. all the SE Asian countries and other parts of the world are to some degree dealing with this sickness depending on how much unspoiled land they have left, other valuable resources, and the degree of governmental transparency. The invasion of the Chinese is a great concern to all.

The opinions of many Cambodians and those barang I have talked to is that of all the SE Asian countries, Cambodia stands to be the biggest loser. It will continue to need our help, but it will have to be the kind of help that can empower them enough so that they can regain some of their pride of culture. They have been constantly beaten down over the years with totally corrupts leaders.They have also had over half of their country slaughtered during the reign of the Rouge wiping out almost all their well-educated and older generation. Now they are faced not only with a totally corrupt government, but a floundering population of young people who have by and large been poorly educated unless they were fortunate to have parents who were wealthy enough to send them to an International school.

Most NGO’s focus on teaching English and various skills such as making crafts and learning computer skills to those disadvantaged kids who have no parents or prospects, but I think that what they probably need more than anything else right now is to be empowered. More emphasis on Life Skills training could do this. They have to be given a better understanding of their past and learn to take  pride in their  culture again. This could help them to stand up to the Chinese in a way that isn’t going to get them killed. They need to change their thinking from despair to hope in spite of the obstacles that are facing them. Everyone agrees that a change of government is needed, but for now they will, unfortunately,  have to accept the fact that their present government is here to stay for a while.

I wish that the Cambodian people had fewer odds facing them and their lives could be easier. I wish that their future could be more promising because if any people deserve more, it would have to be them.

How Good Are We at Dealing With Change?

“The only people who really look forward to a change are babies.”

Change is a topic most of us even hate to talk about let alone deal with, and yet we are being bombarded with it every day in some way, shape or form. Seems like it’s occurring all around us as we are called upon to deal with it whether we want to or not. We can’t ignore it, especially those changes we have no control over. Do I need to give examples here? Okay, the one we hear most about, at least here in Canada, is climate change. Second to that one would be our aging population and what this means for all us Canadians, and the third might be the changes which are constantly occurring in the technology field. These are the big ones to my mind which then can be broken down into a myriad of smaller components such as, how our political system must change… possibly our concept of democracy… our social systems, our approach to immigration … the list can go forever. I sense that almost everything needs to be changed. We are becoming aware that we must replace all our old ways of thinking and acting for something new. The big question is how do we go about making the changes we know we must?

I should give credit for the quote about ‘babies’ to a workshop leader I met in the mid ’90’s. He got me thinking about change and how it can affect us in our lives for better or worse. At the time, I was working for a non-profit agency. Ontario’s economy had been dealt a huge blow putting them into a recession which was brought on by the change of an industrial based economy to the  ‘age of technology’ or computers. Jobs which people had worked at for years were being wiped out….never to come back. The thousands who witnessed their jobs disappearing faced the choice of either learning how to use these machines or end up serving coffee at Tim Horton’s for the rest of their work days.

At first, I was excited to be a part of Ontario’s launch to help these displaced workers to either get another job or some training for the new age besetting them. Here was an opportunity for me to help these unfortunate people with my teaching and counselling skills. This would be the perfect job for me, for hadn’t I recently been through the same ordeal after losing a lucrative position as a sales rep? Set adrift with no immediate prospects or outplacement help from my company, I happened upon Richard Boyle’s “What Colour is Your Parachute?” This book became my Bible in helping me make my career switch from sales into counselling. If I could do this on my own, then couldn’t these displaced workers do the same with a little help from me?

How naive of me to think I could save all those poor souls who were experiencing just what I had gone through. My agency was responsible for getting older, experienced workers either job ready or trained in something that could get them back into the work force…quickly! It didn’t take me long to realize that it was an impossible task to do this in just three weeks.

Upon reflection, I can honestly say my five years working with the unemployed offered me challenges I had never faced before. On the other hand, they handed me an incredible learning experience. You may think it strange that I say this, but didn’t some great sage…was it Plato or Socrates… reveal that we inevitably end up teaching what we need to learn the most? My greatest awakening was accepting that not all people will handle change in the same manner or time frame. In other words, the idea of a three week program was doomed to failure. Only a few breezed through the program with any kind of flying colours. Those who did manage to finish it either found a job or went on for some short-term training in computers. We also turned out many truck and fork lift drivers. Sadly, there were some who couldn’t overcome their job loss before their EI (employment insurance) ran out so ended up on welfare. Of those who did find employment, none got anywhere near the salary they earned at their old jobs. Most ended up working on contract or an hourly basis with little in the way of benefits or pensions. My guess is that some never worked again due to depression resulting from their loss. One of my clients even tried to take his life and ended up in the Clarke Institute, a mental hospital in Toronto.

Everyone handles change in a different way depending on their past experiences, their outlook on life’s challenges, and their emotional development. Change is mostly good as far as I am concerned, and I hope that some of my clients did get that message. Having the experience of working with them, I concluded that the more change we have in our lives, the better we get at handling it. Again I was judging from my own experience. I had to deal with many changes in my growing up years at home…moving around and living with various relatives because my parents weren’t up to the task. This could have had negative results, but instead I unknowingly developed some resilience. Although this helped me through my job loss, it took a toll on my confidence which I had to work hard at rebuilding. My work with older workers helped as did further internal work over the years.  Again, I prejudged my clients by thinking that if I could do it why couldn’t they? There was a difference. Many of them had grown up in stable homes, worked their entire work life at the same job, and were the sole bread winners. They had the toughest time dealing with their job loss for they had not only lost the only work they had ever known, they had lost their self-worth. Our programs didn’t give enough credence to their emotional states. To rebuild a man’s self-worth by probing into his past calls for an inward approach that most of these men were afraid to address. Our life skills classes only touched the surface of such a necessary journey and fell short of helping them to come back out on top to eagerly pursue new possibilities for the challenges ahead.

In the ’90’s we had the older workers who had their jobs disappear with the advent of new technology. Today we have the young workers trying to find jobs in our new economy who are discovering they are woefully lacking in the skills needed for today’s work world. Alvin Tofler, author of “Power Shift”, warned us that this would happen. Whenever, I told my clients that the future would require workers who would need more than a high school education, be willing to learn new skills all through their work life, and count on having several careers, I would be met with disbelief and laughter. They looked at me as some kind of Pollyanna who was not to be taken seriously. Thirty years have passed, and we are still figuring out how to deal with the fast pace of our technology. We haven’t planned for the future and are now scrambling to get people trained to do the jobs which are now here and will be coming. Just think about the jobs which will be required to deal with climate change!

But now back to the present. Every day the media is talking about the changes we must make in practically every facet of our life. Sometimes it seems we must change just about everything, and we must do it now.  This is frightening news for most people because it’s so overwhelming. However, there is a growing movement of young people who are products of the computer age and good parenting who will be the movers and shakers we’ll need. I meet some of them in my travels. They are the ‘digital nomads’ who don’t call any one place as home but travel this earth using their computers to conduct whatever business they are interested in. They teach English, they write, they sell, they do volunteer work, or they set up their own business. They are totally independent and know they’ll never work for some large company for any length of time. They are constantly learning, they’re creative, and they are open to helping this planet in any way they can. They are the hope for our future because they are resilient, and they aren’t afraid to take the challenge that comes with uncertainty and change. They have a totally different mind-set from our workers of the 90’s.

For those of us who are older and don’t have such an adventurous spirit as our ‘digital nomads’, what can we do to prepare ourselves for the changes which are so inevitably coming?  How do we prepare ourselves, our children, and grandchildren? How do we even get them to listen and get involved in being part of the solution for dealing with the changes we must make rather than be part of the problem? My work with the displaced workers of the ’90’s taught me that change imposed on us by outside forces can be devastating if we aren’t prepared. The best way we can prepare for external change is by changing ourselves. Then we can help others. This is the part that will take work and daring because we will be forced to take a long hard look at the truth about ourselves and the state of the world. This is the starting point. From there we can use our skills and knowledge to help our ailing world. What other choice do we have?

 

Thailand Again?

“Are you going back to Thailand again? When are you leaving? What is it that draws you there?”

These are the three questions I can expect to be asked this time every year as I ready for my big trip over to Thailand. As most of you probably know my answer to the first one is an unequivocal “Yes, I am going back again.” In reply to the second question, I am leaving on December 9th from the Robert L. Stanfield Airport just outside Halifax arriving in Bangkok on the 11th causing me to lose a day. This will be my eighth visit. When I mention this, many then throw out the third question of WHY I would choose to go to the same country for eight years in a row?

The first time I was asked why I keep going back (my first trip was in 2008), I really had to give some serious thought to my answer, coming up with a few obvious reasons such as the warm climate, the Eastern culture, and the friendly people. Over the years my reasons have multiplied so the aim of this post is to help you understand what calls me back each year to this still beautiful and exotic country.

TO ESCAPE WINTER

This is undoubtedly a top priority for me and Thailand offers this in spades. Our winter months coincide with their dry season which is invariably sunny and hot. December and January are the most comfortable months.  After that it starts to heat up and can be quite humid as its near the equator. However, I will take this any day over howling winds, sleet and snow  which have become a steady diet in Victoria Beach in Nova Scotia. To give you an idea of just how important this is to me, this trip will be the second time I am going solo leaving “hubby” in Florence to shiver in the raw cold that it offers in winter. No thanks! I have been there twice and loved the city but could never imagine spending a winter there.

FRIENDLY PEOPLE

It was probably after our first whirlwind trip in 2008 when we were on our way home that I knew without a doubt that I would return again and the next time would be longer. The gentle smiles of the Thai people with their genuine greeting of ‘Sa wa dee ka’ accompanied with a wei ( a forward bow of the head with hands together) did it for me. I sometimes wonder where they get all their patience especially with us tourists who are coming in droves often failing to leave a positive impression. We live by the clock over here in our Western world and the Thai don’t. They also don’t understand why we let little things like being overcharged for a tuk -tuk ride get us so angry.  The Thai are usually more than happy to help us out if we run into any difficulty, and the ones we have met are honest to the nth degree. Hubby has left his wallet, camera, and glasses at various places over the years and never once did he not get them back.

THE THAI CULTURE

About 95% of the Thai population practices the Theravada form of Buddhism. Unlike all other religions, it does not emphasize how or what we must believe but more on how we can better ourselves in this life by carrying out positive actions in the way of the Buddha. The wats or temples are open all the time and everyone is welcome so unlike our churches which are for the most part only open on Sundays. Buddhism is a way of life practiced every day not just on Sunday. Since time is not the high priority it is in our society, to visitors it appears the country is in a perpetual state of organized chaos which somehow to our utter surprise seems to work. The Thai take things in their stride and simply laugh at those visitors who get upset over things that don’t work out according to their agendas or code of perfection. Needless to say this laid back attitude does wonders for my stress level. This along with the sun improves my well-being considerably.

EASE OF LIVING

Thailand is now considered by the modern-day standards of our world as a developed country making it a relatively peaceful and welcoming country to outsiders. It’s probably the only country in the world that can claim a succession of military coups over the past 20 years which have been mostly peaceful. The two largest cities, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, are now world-class and have all the amenities of the Western world. There is poverty and there is great wealth, but there is also a growing middle class. All of this along with the multitude of gorgeous beaches make this an easy place for ex-pats to live there and for visitors to hang out. People always ask me if I feel safe there. My reply is that I feel safer there than I do at home.

COST OF LIVING

Most people are really surprised when I tell them that I can live cheaper there than I ever could in Nova Scotia. This is especially true in the winter time. I don’t have to heat my home or feed fuel to my car. In addition, my food, accommodation, and transportation are all cheaper than here. I usually rent a fair-sized room with a fridge, TV, and air-conditioner for about $275 a month. It’s much cheaper to eat out than in so I have no cooking to worry about. I get my room cleaned and sheets changed once a week. What more could I ask for? It’s really an extended holiday since I can do all those things such as reading and writing that I never can find enough time for when I am at home.

DENTAL/MEDICAL SERVICES

Thailand is quickly becoming a mecca for those people who seek expert and inexpensive dental and medical services. I have been taking advantage of their dental services every year having had crowns, gum surgery and expert cleaning done to keep my teeth healthy. This time round I am scheduled to have two crowns put in probably to the tune of $500 at most. The last crown I had done several years ago cost me about $200. Here in Annapolis Royal I would have to pay about $1200 per crown. I have never had any medical work done but for my friends who have, they all report having a very positive experience and are highly impressed with the quality of service. It’s not surprising that Thailand is being noted as a good country to go to for a medical holiday.

MARKETS AND SHOPPING

Over the years I have noticed a marked increase in the number of markets available now in practically every town of fair size. Chiang Mai where I hang out for most of my time is a shoppers haven for not just craft markets but for those who have money to spend and are looking for world-class shopping. In the past two years, three new classy malls have opened up, and it’s not just tourists who frequent these malls with their upscale shops and cafes but more and more Thai, especially the youth. The Thai people love to shop as hubby and I witnessed last Christmas while in Bangkok.

ACCESS TO OTHER SE ASIAN COUNTRIES

The Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok is now rated one of the busiest in Asia and the 16th busiest in the world. It is the main link to all other Southeast Asian cities. Because Bangkok is a large cosmopolitan city rivalling all other SE Asian cities, it has become the favoured jumping off point for tourists to other parts of Asia. I think many tourists would agree with me that returning to Thailand after a jaunt to any of the other Asian countries is somewhat akin to returning home. Is it the people who inhabit this country today or the long history of a strong and independent race who have never been under the rule of some foreign power that makes this place a safe haven for all the adventurous souls who roam the world? Who really knows but I’m game to bet that most travellers feel the same way as I do.

RE-UNITING WITH OLD FRIENDS

Over the years I have made friends with other travellers who go to Thailand again and again for many of the same reasons as I do. We may skip a year or two but we all manage to somehow meet up again and share past travel experiences and discuss all the advantages of the kind of lifestyle we have adopted over the years. We aren’t exactly ex-pats because we don’t live there year round but we are becoming close to it. Chiang Mai has probably one of the largest and most active expat societies in the world composed of many people from the US, Britain, Canada, and other European countries. It started off with mostly older retired couples and singles looking for a warm country which isn’t too expensive to live in, but more and more I am discovering many young people who have decided they don’t want to be a part of the ‘rat race’ or simply haven’t been able to find appropriate work in their own country so have chosen to become what is commonly known now a ‘digital nomads’. They are working their way around the world and like the older folk are discovering that Chiang Mai is a nice place to settle for a while.

In just twelve hours I will be heading out for my long journey over to Thailand for my eighth time. I will arrive in the early morning of the 11th after approximately 30 hours of flying time with breaks in Toronto and Amsterdam. It’s too much time in the air, but I always try to make the best of it with the latest movies, reading, and some sleep if I’m lucky. I usually manage to beat any serious jet lag by taking a homeopathic remedy called “No More Jet Lag” which doesn’t help me sleep while on the plane but does eliminate all the side effects of flying long distances, such as fatigue, sleep disorders, and general discomfort. I am usually back to normal after a day or two and ready to enjoy what is becoming a second home for me. I no longer can imagine spending a winter here in Nova Scotia so long as I have the choice to go to some place like Thailand.