A Postcard from Kamchey Dam

Posted on by Stan Kahn
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Kamchey Dam, being built by a Chinese company upriver from Kampot on the edge of Bokor Park, is proceeding apace along with the destruction of most of the road to Teuk Chou rapids and sizable chunks of National Highway 3. The culprit is the use of very heavy trucks for construction materials. It’s too bad they couldn’t find the rock fill they need closer because a good 20 kms of road is under attack.

The Chinese are using giant dump trucks for carrying rock that are far larger than anything I’ve seen on an American road. They look to be about 20 cubic meters. The only compensation, as far as the roads are concerned, is a second steering axle. I’d guess they’re carrying at least 50% more weight with only an extra 2 wheels.–12 wheels instead of 10.

They are also using smaller trucks which would be proper weight if left as designed except they’ve had their sides raised to carry more rock. Properly loaded they would be appropriate for a heavy duty surface typical of a major US highway. On Cambodia’s roads, a disaster.

On my first trip to Kampot last September after returning from the States I passed by an amazing sight about 10 kms from town. Those heavy trucks had buckled the center of the road to the point of impassibility, so to compensate they gradually eased over to the right with each pass, and as they did the buckle kept getting wider. That also meant they were edging closer to the shoulders which, being rainy season, were very soft. At the point when I drove by there were trucks stuck in the muck on both sides completely blocking the road. They had to cut a road through private property to get vehicles around.

That little buckle has turned into 100 meters of unpaved roadway which, though they regularly improve it, quickly, in spots, becomes just barely passable for a small vehicle. In addition to that section there’s a smaller broken up section not far away and lots of places where the surface is deteriorating fast. By the time the dam is finished in another year or so it’ll take millions of bucks to bring the roads back to snuff.

Overloading trucks is a totally false economy. They’re doing it partly to save on wages (which actually makes little sense here where pay rates are so low). But I was in back of a rock hauler recently that could barely make 20 miles an hour (32kph) so the trip obviously takes a lot longer when the truck is overloaded, though probably not twice as long. They save because the return trip is the same. They go much faster when empty, maybe about 50% faster when properly loaded. They do save on wages, but not as much as they think. They also save on fuel, but only, once again, because the return trip is the same. When an engine is laboring under a heavy load, it’s guzzling gas.

Anyway, whatever they save on wages and fuel is easily offset by increased maintenance and repair costs. When you consider the very high cost of parts for heavy duty trucks, it’s practically guaranteed they are not saving one riel. It is also a serious cost to have work disrupted by breakdowns, not to mention the hassle of rescuing disabled trucks on the road.

Overloading is commonplace in Cambodia but in most cases it’s only the vehicle owner that pays. In the case of heavy trucks, society pays. The builder of the dam should be forced to compensate for road damage, but I doubt if they will.

On another note, foreigners are now being prevented from going anywhere in Bokor Park including back country trails. There’s a trailhead 3 or 4 kms up the road from my property that follows a creek up a steep canyon. It’s a pleasant hike I’ve done many times: it passes through thick woods and provides access to a creek strewn with giant boulders. It also has a sizable, very-difficult-to-access waterfall. For me, that trail – and others like it – is one of the prime attractions of Kampot. Fortunately, it was a holiday last time I went so the guards had a day off, otherwise I would’ve been turned away.

The trail is totally unmarked and unsigned, known of only by devotees – no more than a handful of Barangs per month. The park is now controlled by Sok Kong – owner of Sokimex and purported to be the richest man in Cambodia – who has grand plans to spend two billion dollars up there on a luxury casino and resort complex. (Here’s hoping current difficult worldwide economic conditions are shooting his plans full of holes and somehow the park returns to public control and benefit.)

The first I heard about the reason for the closure of the park was that it arose because of a dispute between Sok and the local government over what he plans to charge to enter the park. I was told he wanted a $40 fee whereas the authorities figured, rightly so, that such a high fee would be bad for tourism. I thought, though it didn’t make much sense, that the back country trail was closed because Sok Kong was worried about a tiny loss of income from people getting into the park in the back way, rather than the road.

Once the road was upgraded, he charged $25 per person including transportation, and prohibited passage of individual vehicles, but then conditions changed almost by the week and it was really hard to keep up. When I went to Bokor a few years back the round trip cost $6 in a shared 4-wheel drive plus $5 to enter the park. Twenty bucks seemed a lot to visit Angkor, forty for Bokor would be absurd.

But the latest word is that it’s really a dispute between park rangers and tourist police. It seems that the rangers have been requiring visitors to transfer into their publicly owned trucks for the trip up and charging a heap of cash for the privilege, thus richly lining their pockets. The tourist police, meanwhile want a cut which the rangers are balking at. As a result of the infighting, Sok closed the whole park.

Meanwhile, I’ve been on a roller coaster of emotions concerning the land. The second guy I hired to take care of the place, who has since been canned, was flaking on me, saying he was working but not doing much except something I really didn’t want done and made very explicit, that is, no burning. Burning is a common practice in the developing world as well as in many situations in America. It’s the quickest and easiest way to clear land and dispose of brush and does give a temporary boost to soil fertility; wood ash is high in potassium and phosphorus. The smoke produced, on the other hand, is not good for anything, a total negative in all respects.

It is far better to compost the brush cuttings and return the organic material to the soil and that is especially true here in the tropics where very heavy rainfall leaches most nutrients out. Organic material added to the soil increases tilth, making it lighter and airier, and slowly releases some nitrogen into the soil as well as phosphorus and potassium.

I told him very clearly I wanted no burning and he told my friend who came with us to the land that he understood perfectly that I wanted no burning, but when I returned to Kampot after his first week on the job there were lots of burn spots. One thing for sure, I don’t need a worker who does what he wants to my land rather than what I want.

As noted on the forum, for those of you who don’t get around to that part of this site, a few weeks ago as I approached the land I saw that the neighbors were again using it as if it were theirs, once again doing so after my repeated objections at their previous trespassing. Contrary to good manners and common sense, I freaked and was loud enough for it to be heard for quite a distance. I did bring a Khmer friend by later who amply apologized for me, but it seemed not to have worked because my worker was told by the neighbors that he couldn’t take water from the community pond. I may have permanently alienated the Khmer neighbors.
At any rate, that all meant that when I arrived in Kampot on my last trip I had an imperative need for a well digger. Taking water from the pond was a big hassle anyway, so the well was essential under any circumstances. At first my friend, the real estate guy who found the land for me, was too busy to get right to finding a well digger. After asking several other people I was in a state of pure frustration. Most of those I asked, both expat and Khmer, had no clue how to find one there’s obviously no Yellow Pages in Kampot. The only person who did locate one quoted a price far in excess of anything I’d heard before and way more than I was prepared to pay.

Thankfully, the real estate friend came through and arranged a well for $350 dollars. The pipe goes down 20 meters. There’s also a concrete platform and heavy duty hand pump. Unfortunately I wasn’’t able to wait in Kampot till it was finished so the plants had to hang around getting thirsty for another week until my return. If I stay more than five days in Kampot my Phnom Penh plants will begin to suffer. Longer stays would require paying someone to water (not much, really) and giving a set of keys, which is more problematical.
It’s easier to stay away from Kampot, since my house plants there get watered while I’m gone and the ones in the ground can, evidently, get along without water for at least two weeks only the tomatoes looked peaked and unhappy. The roots of the trees and ornamentals can reach down farther into the ground as the surface dries out. The soil is about 30% sand so is an easy environment for root expansion.

I’m feeling much better about the land than I did a bit more than a week ago but the difficulty of getting things done, keeping the locals from taking anything they want (the immediate neighbors are certainly wary but there are plenty others who invade at will) and the sheer hassle of keeping a house and land maintained definitely pose lifestyle questions. My life would’ve been a lot easier without the burden of ownership, but I love having the place – I’m sucked in and will go ahead improving it and take a chance.

Stan Kahn

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