Photo by James Wheeler on

During yesterday’s post on monkey hate, I mentioned that many of the videos involved are made and uploaded to YouTube in Cambodia. However, merely accusing some people in that country of cruelty to monkeys without looking at it in a bit more detail is unfair. After all, England and Scotland are responsible for much of the state of the world today, invented the concentration camp and did all sorts of outrageous stuff, and still are, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to these countries or the people in them. It’s also simplistic and racist to think in terms of “those monkey-torturing Khmer bastards”. What actually led to this situation arising? What’s its history?

Nonetheless I am going to start from monkey hate and look at links to the state of affairs in the country, although I also want to talk about Pol Pot’s régime and the Khmer language and script. Apparently many people associate Cambodia with the Angkor Wat temple complex, but for whatever reason that isn’t what comes to mind first for me. As such, it’s easy for this to become quite negative, so I’m going to tak pains to avoid that.

Two aspects of the monkey hate situation seem to interact to make Cambodia the centre of this activity. One is the ecology of the country. Cambodia is particularly biodiverse, although it isn’t one of the seventeen megadiverse countries declared in 1988. Then again, neither is Italy and that’s a biodiversity hot spot. Tonlé Sap is a large freshwater lake which floods the surrounding area every wet season and has an associated river, a tributary of the Mekong. It has a maximum area of about 16 000 km2 and a minimum of 2 500. The name simply means “large freshwater river”.

© WWF / Zeb HOGAN, will be removed on request

It’s the home of the largest species of freshwater bony fish in the world, and in fact the Mekong has four out of ten of the largest such species, including the giant freshwater stingray, a cartilaginous fish, unusual for fresh water environments although there are a freshwater sharks in Australia.

By User:Lerdsuwa – Own photo (400D + 50/1.4), CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Giant Barb, up to three metres long and almost a third of a tonne in weight, is exceeded in size by the seven metre long Chinese paddlefish, a swordfish-like animal who may be extinct (and didn’t live in the Mekong):

The dog-eating catfish, however, does. Then again, these are also kept in a Staffordshire lake where they’ve eaten all the mink. The critically-endangered Irrawaddy dolphin also lives in the Mekong:

By Foto: Stefan Brending, Lizenz: Creative Commons by-sa-3.0 de, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

As well as humans, Cambodian primates include the prosimian slow loris (three species), seven species of Old World monkey and two species of lesser ape (gibbons). Colugos and three species of tupaia are also found, all of whom are euarchonta and the colugo, or flying “lemur”, is even more closely related to primates:

By Lip Kee Yap. – Flickr: Colugo., CC BY-SA 2.0,

There are also pitcher plants, insectivorous plants which are also detritovores and used by tupaias as toilets. Gymnures, furry hedgehogs, are found there too:

Not to mention dugongs, Asian elephants, pangolins, rhinos and a total of 162 species of mammal, along with even more reptiles. Many species are also found in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, and there are also likely to be many species of plant and animal still unknown to science.

Gambodge, which is also the French word for “Cambodia”, is a yellow pigment used to dye robes saffron taken from latex found in trees in the same order, but not family, as St John’s Wort and Rose of Sharon. It has been used medically but is a stimulating laxative, so it belongs in the heroic rather than the physiomedical tradition. It occurs in Cambodia but not uniquely so, and also produces a fruit which is used as a dangerous weight loss supplement. In that context the word “dangerous” is redundant. Show me even a relatively safe weight loss supplement and I will be very surprised!

The country is undergoing a period of very rapid economic growth, which has led to threats to these organisms’ habitats such as deforestation, overfishing and threats to mangrove swamps. As is usual in rainforest areas, the soil is of poor quality for growing crops and unsustainable agriculture leads to soil erosion. In spite of the availability of copious fresh water, there is actually a water shortage there, and it shares with Laos the presence of a very large number of land mines. There are more amputees per capita in Cambodia than anywhere else in the world and the number is rapidly growing due to the land mines.

Getting back to the ecology, the opportunity exists for exploitation of wildlife by individuals, and there’s also a motive in the form of the economic situation. There is very little regulation of industry in Cambodia. I know I own many garments which were made there, as clothing is one of the major business sectors along with footwear, and nowadays there’s also tourism. It’s common to see people set up petrol stations on street corners consisting of little more than a pump and a barrel of petrol, and there’s a culture of entepreneurship and innovation there of necessity. Unfortunately the lack of regulation also makes the country rife with child trafficking for illegal adoption. Poor parents often sell their children for a few hundred US dollars to gangs who then forge orphan certificates, and I imagine there are also a lot of orphans in Cambodia owing to all the land mines, and the children are often adopted by wealthy Westerners, and possibly become sex slaves. In view of this practice, it’s unsurprising that monkey hate has found Cambodia a fertile source of videos.

The impression I’m left with here is of a fairly desperate and poor population which is looking for opportunities to make enough money to live on, and presumably has a low degree of empathy for monkeys, and this is the result. I don’t think they are themselves sadistic. They simply know what appeals and gets views on YouTube, so this is what they do.

There are about five dozen macaques living in Angkor Wat who are famous for taking food from human tourists. They also bite and are a rabies risk, and they’re aggressive. Therefore it is possible that human attitudes towards monkeys among the Khmer themselves are quite negative.

Angkor Wat itself used to be the centre of the largest Asian city of pre-industrial times, the capital of the Khmer Empire, also known as  យសោធរបុរៈ or Yasodharapura, which may have had a population of a million, which is the same as Imperial Rome. Almost the whole population of the country is Theravada Buddhist, at least nominally. This is also referred to as Hinayana – the lesser vehicle. I presume you’re familiar enough with Buddhism not to need further exposition, although the practice and lifestyle of people following a particular faith may not adhere particularly close to the principles involved. Not a criticism of the Khmer, just an observation about the human condition.

Anyone who has memories of the 1970s will be aware of the reputation of Pol Pot. As I’ve said before, it is important not just to be negative about a far-away country, but his era can’t really be passed over without comment. Pol Pot was the nickname of the dictator whose birth name was Saloth Sar. Born in 1925 into wealthy conditions, Saloth Sar gained a scholarship to study engineering in Paris as a student, where he met up with other Khmer radicals and attempted to read Marx but couldn’t understand him, so he read Stalin instead and found him considerably more inspiring. He failed his exams and returned to Cambodia. I think it’s fair to claim that he was not truly communist because he didn’t understand Marx. However, he was an ally of nominally Marxist régimes, mainly because Mao Zedong regarded him as a useful tool against Soviet dominance in Southeast Asia. The French Indochinese era ended under the Vichy régime during World War II, when they allowed Japan to take control in order that Japan have easier access to China. In 1945, Japan ratified the King Norom Sihanouk’s (នរោត្តម សីហនុ – the order of the words is inverted like many other personal names which don’t use the “standard” Western order) independent kingdom. He abdicated after ten years and formed a political party, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (សង្គមរាស្ត្រនិយម), whose ideology was conservative Theravada Buddhism, monarchism, nationalism and conservatism. It claimed to be socialist but this was completely groundless by any estimation. The party won the election, all opposition party having been imprisoned. I mention this to put it in context. Pol Pot’s régime didn’t just appear on its own out of a liberal democratic social order. A policy of neutrality was adopted but during the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese troops moved supplies and weapons through the north, resulting in Richard Nixon secretly bombing Cambodia, as Laos had been a few years earlier. When this became publicly known in the States, it turned opinion decisively against the war and Pol Pot’s guerilla movement referred to as the Khmer Rouge took advantage of the anti-American outrage this generated to recruit the Khmer to their cause. This is roughly the point at which he started to refer to himself as Pol Pot, which seems to be short for “Political Potential”. Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol while abroad and Pol Pot entered into an alliance with the king, with the result that many of the Khmer Rouge recruits saw themselves as fighting for the King rather than for the apparent communism of the movement.

Over the next few years, the Khmer Rouge managed to take control of large areas of territory, where the farms were collectivised, very much against the will of the peasants, many of whom slaughtered the animals rather than allowing them to be shared. The movement attempted to cast the whole population in the image of the peasantry, having them wear shoes made from car tyres and dress in black with a red krama, which is a multipurpose scarf eventually used by many Khmer to hang themselves when they found the social order unbearable. Rather than seeking to equalise by levelling up, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge chose to equalise down, executing many of the more educated and the clergy and emptying the cities to have the populace work on the collective farms. Many artifacts of modern technology and Western life were destroyed or abandoned as capitalist, and there were piles of banknotes blowing around on the streets of the deserted Phnom Penh because money had been abolished. Two and a half million people are said to have been killed by the new government in the second half of the 1970s, although to Cambodia the calendar was reset to Year Zero in 1975 as part of the rejection of all culture and traditions so that a new revolutionary culture be formed. The famous Killing Fields (វាលពិឃាត – veal pikheat) were mass graves of more than a million people, and about a third of the country’s population were killed by the government. The country was also de-industrialised. Pol Pot had studied the Reign of Terror and the French Revolution thoroughly and seems to have attempted to emulate it. Life expectancy in Cambodia in 1977 was just eighteen years. Many of them were also killed through forced labour. Even the hospitals were emptied of their patients, and they were forced to march out of Phnom Penh in the sweltering conditions, and of course many of them died too. There was no intermediate stage where former bosses played a part in constructing the society, even though the Chinese had warned them not to attempt this. Thousands of teachers were executed, as were medical staff, and anyone wearing glasses or a wristwatch.

Unemployment fell to zero although with the abolition of money, and incidentally therefore banks, this doesn’t mean paid work. A democratic assembly was elected, which would’ve been for a five-year term, representing only peasants, workers and members of the armed forces. Those deemed to be “New People” did not participate. Workers’ Coöperatives had administrative control in some locations. They maintained a close relationship with China and North Korea.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this time, although it was clearly notorious and can’t be ignored. I first learned of the situation in Cambodia through the ‘Readers’ Digest’ in 1977 and of course there was a famous ‘Blue Peter’ appeal in 1979 which achieved its target in less than a week. The appeal was possible because at the beginning of 1979, Vietnamese troops had taken control of Phnom Penh and imposed a more moderate government. The Khmer Rouge retreated into the forests and holed up in Thailand. After that, something complicated happened that I didn’t understand, involving a coalition government and government in exile, linked to Chinese disquiet at Vietnamese influence over the country, until 1993 when it became a kingdom again and appeared to have a democratic government with wider suffrage than previously. There was then a coup in 1997 and an election the following year which was probably marred by violence and intimidation. Today’s situation is described as “a competitive authoritarian régime”. This kind of governmental situation arose after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and consists of apparently democratic structures agreed to be the means of gaining power but the party in power abuses that power to undermine democracy. However, opposition groups are not subject to imprisonment or the need to operate in exile. They lack at least one of the three characteristics of a level playing field, free elections or civil liberties. Clearly Trump was trying to push the US further in this direction and the situation in this country also has elements of this, although it’s hard to assess to what extent.

One of the consequences of this seems to have been the current degree of corruption and laissez-faire, hands-off approach which has allowed the child trafficking to thrive, along with the monkey hate. Hence I think there’s now a fairly clear picture of how this has happened.

The Khmer Rouge have influenced the demographics of the country considerably. Half the population is now under twenty, mainly because of the murder of a third of the country. Technically, however, this mass murder was not genocide because it wasn’t based on ethnicity or religion. Although religion was persecuted, and the Christian and Muslim minorities in the country were killed on the basis of being a Western influence (which seems strange for someone living in Western Europe as Islam seems eastern for many non-Islamic White people here and is similarly the basis for persecution), the majority of the people killed were simply Khmer and nominally Theravada Buddhists like their killers and most of the rest of the country. The killing is therefore atypical in some ways. There is a potential legal problem here because it means that definitions of the crime of genocide miss out such events and provide a defence, so it may be quite important to recognise this crime for what it is or extend the scope in order to deter the chances of this happening again. It was, in a way, a different kind of phenomenon with different causes.

I want to turn now to the Khmer language. This is in the Mon-Khmer or Austroasiatic language family, a group of languages found in Eastern India and Indochina. Although it’s in the same family as Vietnamese, the two are far from mutually comprehensible but there is some mutual intelligibility with Thai and Lao due, I imagine, to shared vocabulary, suggesting that there’s a Southeast Asian Sprachbund, where languages in close proximity acquire each others’ characteristics. Khmer is unusual in the area for not being tonal. During the French occupation, there was an attempt to romanise the language, which was, however, abandoned and therefore the script now used is the traditional Khmer script, which is a Brahmi-based abugida related to the Devanagari script used for Sanskrit and Hindi. An abugida is an alphabet-like script but with an assumed inherent vowel following each consonant which is only omitted by using a cancellation symbol or a vowel diacritic or other addition to the consonant. It looks a bit like Thai and Lao but is more “crenellated”, like it has turrets at the top. The Khmer script came to my attention in 1977 when it was mentioned in the Guinness Book Of Records as being the “longest alphabet”, with six dozen letters, although more recent claims say that it has two more and others that it has fewer. This seems to be due to the probability that some of the letters are only used to write foreign loanwords but are pronounced identically to other sounds in Khmer. In its case, the inherent vowel is the long /ɑ/ found in all spoken languages (or something very close to it is), meaning that the script may be adaptable to other tongues but it is in fact only used for Khmer itself and Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. Some consonants have an inherent “o” instead. Every consonant but one has a subscript form used in consonant clusters. In addition, there are ten consonants used in loanwords from French and Thai.

Cambodia is unsurprisingly the only country in which Khmer is the majority language. The other languages spoken there are also Mon-Khmer, but French and English are used in education. Transliteration of Khmer into Latin script is very inaccurate, so for example “Khmer” is pronounced something like “kumai”. Unlike some other related languages, Khmer has borrowed extensively from Sanskrit and Pali and is therefore not as unfamiliar to an Indo-European language speaker than might be expected from its Austroasiatic origin. Despite considerable attempts to do so, I’ve been unable to penetrate Mon-Khmer languages and get any kind of feel for them, which is unusual for a language family originating in the Old World or Oceania, but this may be due to the absence of Mon-Khmer languages from a global stage since none of them are internationally prominent beyond the immediate region around Indochina and east India. Like many Far Eastern languages, it has levels of respect, using kinship terms to refer to non-relatives. During Pol Pot’s time, this respect language was abandoned but has now returned. It’s an analytical language, that is, there are no inflections, so in that respect it’s very easy.

Cambodian food is quite well-known and eating insects deliberately is the norm in the country. Freshwater fish is commonly eaten, and is along with insects the main source of protein in the diet. The nutritional quality of the fruit and vegetables is particularly high compared to some other parts of the world. The fruits are conceptually organised into a royal court, with queen, king, princess and so forth, which are mangosteen, durian and milkfruit respectively. There’s also a lot of rice and noodles.

That, then, goes some way towards painting a rather more complete picture of the Kingdom of Cambodia than yesterday’s post managed to do. I just didn’t want to leave it looking like I had an irredeemably stereotypical and negative view of the country. Obviously the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot had a devastatingly negative impact on it, and this is probably what most of us know about the nation, so although this can’t be ignored, it isn’t all there is to it.



Sarada used to be a zymurge. That is, a brewster. She used to brew beer and wine, and such a person is referred to by such a name. Aardvark, though, is something she never was. Nor has she ever considered changing her name to Zzzzzzzzabakov to be the last person in the Telephone Directory, which someone apparently did at some point. I don’t remember their name.

A little annoyingly, alphabetical order requires shorter words to be filed before longer ones, which presumably means there’s less if any kudos involved in being the first entry in the ‘phone book, which in any case is nowadays mainly a conceptual thing. A is actually the most common single-letter surname, comprising more than a tenth of people with such surnames. English, of course, has the indefinite article, leading to the rather boring first entry in the dictionary. This is sometimes followed by the Hawaiian word “aa”, actually a two-syllable word referring to the rugged crust of a lava flow. “Aal” is a red dye from a plant related to coffee, and then we get to the iconic “aardvark” and “aardwolf”.

At the other end of the alphabet there’s no such encumbrance, and there’s plenty of scope for “zy-” words, from the Greek ζυγουν – “to join”, cognate with “Yoga” and “yoke”, and also ζυμοῦν – “to ferment”. There is a species of wasp called Zyzzyx , which suggests onomatopœia, which might occupy the last entry. This opens the floodgates to scientific names of genera, but then there probably isn’t a common name for that wasp and we’re happy to say things like Boa constrictor or Aubretia, so the chances are that if we did have to refer to that species we really would call it a Zyzzyx.

The existence of that insect slightly spoils the narrative I’m trying to spin here, because just before that entry there would be another one which, were it not for Zyzzyx‘s name, would surely be the last word in the dictionary (or “fictionary”, because I’m not sure there is such a work in reality): Zyzzyva. In fact you get all the way through this word before you encounter a vowel as the final letter, another neat feature. “Zyzzyx” has no vowels at all unless you count Y, and on a mythical English Scrabble board with three Z’s, it would score 168 points if played in the top left hand corner. Sadly, it would be impossible to play on such a board. You might think it could be played easily, with a low score, on a Polish scrabble set, but Polish has no X.

Like the zyzzyx, a zyzzyva is an insect. Namely, they’re brilliant red weevils a couple of millitmetres who live on Brazilian palms. First described scientifically in 1922, they were probably named that way as a practical joke to put them last in guides to beetles. Something similar may be happening at the other end of the dictionary with “Aaaaba“, whose name has a rather convoluted history. This refers to another beetle, this time an Australian one, who was originally called “Altinous” until it was realised that name had already been given to a sea spider, so they were renamed “Aaba”, which turned out to be the name of a sponge, so in 2013 they were given a name starting with four A’s. As far as I know, there are no words with four consecutive “vanilla” A’s in any written language, but there is the Estonian “jäääärne”, which means something like “at the edge of the ice”, and once again I think this was probably named as a joke, possibly in response to “zyzzyva”.

The words deployed in Scrabble games delight and sadden me in equal measure because on the one hand weird words are appealing, but on the other the game divorces them from their meaning. Maybe somewhere out there in Halbakery Space there’s a word game which uses both the form and the significance of the words, and it would be interesting to try to invent one. The only two word games I’m aware of which use words like Scrabble are Scrabble itself, of which the casual FB game Words With Friends is a cut-down variant, and a game called Lexicon my grandmother used to play. Lexicon is a card game with letters rather than suits and is described here.


If you assume a random distribution of letters used to make up each name for a genus, and imagine an alphabetical list of all named genera, there would still be a certain type of organism which would be more likely to turn up at the start and end of such a list. If you further confine this to animals, this becomes even more probable. This is of course reminiscent of the Doomsday Argument, and uses established facts about the Latin alphabet to draw a conclusion which doesn’t depend quite as firmly on the facts of what’s being decided as might be expected. One animal species in four is a beetle. Reducing this to insects raises the proportion to two in five. Consequently, if there’s a dictionary of up to date generic names for animals, and these are randomly distributed in the alphabet, the probability of it ending in the name of a beetle is one in four, as is that of it beginning with one, and therefore the odds of it both beginning and ending in the name of a beetle would be one in sixteen. Nor is that a merely technical thing confined to the realm of entomology, because as a language, English only has about a million words, so if these are seriously understood to be proper English words it would more than double the size of the dictionary. As it stands, the OED seems to consist substantially of variant spellings of fairly common words such as “ynpossybul”, which is a little irritating and raises the question of how big English vocabulary really is, and it’s also worth mentioning that a very large number of “English” words are in fact variants, or even identical, to words used internationally in technical contexts, although they may often have been used initially by first language English speakers. Nonetheless, there are rather a lot of species of beetle. J B S Haldane, a rather polymathic scientist who came up with a rather ridiculously large number of influential ideas such as IVF, primordial soup and the hydrogen economy and was an influence on Olaf Stapledon, is alleged to have been asked by a theologian what he had learnt about God from his studies, and replied that God has “an inordinate fondness for beetles”, because there are just so many different species that it’s ludicrous.

Beetles are just one order of one class of one phylum of animals, but include 25% of all animal species, 40% of all insect species and I’m guessing about 30% of all arthropod species. Both the largest and smallest species of free-living insect is a beetle: fist-sized Goliath beetles at the upper end and a featherwing beetle at the lower, whose adults average only 340 μ long. This makes the former thirty-six million times as bulky as the latter. Beetles were also the earliest pollinating insects, because flowering plants evolved before social insects or pollinating butterflies, although there used to be an order of insects practically identical to butterflies in the Jurassic who used to pollinate plants as well. Beetles still pollinate Magnolias. Unlike Lepidoptera or Hymenoptera, beetles don’t just pollinate the flowers but also defæcate on them and eat petals, so they’re like nature’s “first try” at a pollinating insect, less sophisticated than their successors.

Beetles themselves, and I might as well introduce the name “Coleoptera” at this point, are a kind of “second try”. Back in the early ’70s, our garden shed was populated by what we used to call “black beetles”, who are in fact cockroaches, and belong in the other main half of insects from beetles, the Hemimetabola who don’t pupate but just grow bigger, sometimes developing wings in the process. To a casual glance, an American cockroach looks just like a beetle, and on the whole a glance is all you get because they run away pretty fast. I mentioned yesterday that there are two forms of insect flight, and cockroaches, being venerable, are the first insects to use the indirect method, which seems to be connected to the ability to fold the wings flat across their backs. Britain also has native cockroaches who are much smaller and live in burrows. Unlike most beetles, cockroaches lack wing cases and have been around since the coal forests. Some cockroaches have quite sophisticated social structures and termites are in the same order.

The fact that beetle-like insects have evolved twice, along with the fact that they have the most species of any order, once again suggests that if the hard exoskeleton and jointed legs of animals is a common adaptation elsewhere in the Universe, there may well be beetles all over the Galaxy. On Earth, two factors limit insect size. One is that they use tubes open to the outside to move respiratory gases around, meaning that the bulkier an insect gets the spongier it has to be, and the other is that their hard cuticles have to be proportionately heavier the larger they are. Hence the largest insects ever existed on this planet when there was much more oxygen in the atmosphere. However, there isn’t any particular reason why they shouldn’t’ve evolved lungs instead, which many other arthropods have, and they can also approach bulk through forming large colonies of discrete individuals. Consequently, a feasible alien intelligence might exist in the form of swarms of thousands of giant beetles, perhaps with hand-like mouthparts, none with human-like intelligence as such but collectively of perhaps more than human cognitive ability.

Anyone old enough to remember the summer of ’76 in England will remember the ladybird plague. There were twenty-four thousand million altogether that year, mainly seven-spots. This is, however, unlikely to happen again because ’75 was also very hot and sunny, which I can remember but many people forget, and many more ladybirds survived the winter. Also, more recently parasites have killed larval ladybirds, but it could happen again and I imagine climate change makes it more likely. It depends on a larger than usual population of aphids as well. It was also the first time I noticed that ladybirds seem to produce an irritant straw-coloured liquid, which is presumably why they’re brightly coloured. Nowadays our native species compete with East Asian harlequin ladybirds, whose appearance is very variable and are therefore hard to recognise.

One of the sadnesses of my life is that I’ve never seen a stag beetle. They seem to be quite common, since most other people I know seem to have come across them. As such, they’re a little like vipers, whom I’ve also never seen despite them being very common in the area of England I lived in as a child. As with many other insects, including the mayfly, stag beetles live most of their lives as larvæ and pupæ, taking six years to mature into imagos (adults) at which point the males develop their enormous mouthparts which may actually prevent them from feeding at all in that form, which is also the case with many other insects such as some moths. Although stag beetles are the largest terrestrial British insects at up to six dozen millimetres, great diving beetles are also very big at three centimetres, and unlike them are not topped out by the enormous mandibles.

One of the sad things for a sighted person living in the British Isles is that few of our animals are very colourful. We don’t, for example, have anything like the cardinal birds common in North America although we have got kingfishers, bullfinches and the various titmice and wagtails. Beetles are a welcome exception to this rule. As well as the aforementioned ladybirds, we have tiger beetles and the metallic-looking tansy and rosemary beetles and rose chafer, rainbow leaf beetles which are both multicoloured and metallic in appearance, and in my childhood I recall a very common bright red beetle who used to live on flowers, possibly Rose of Sharon. One thing I find hard to tell is whether I simply lived in a more biodiverse area than I now do, which is true, or whether biodiversity has fallen dramatically, which is also true. It’s a question of which factor is more influential on my experience. I have never seen a glow worm, for example, since I left Kent, although apparently they only tend to exist in patches. They’re also beetles, in case you don’t know.

In conclusion therefore, beetles are bloody brilliant and their names are useful for playing Scrabble, and maybe also crosswords.