Pepsi 1, Coca Cola 0November 30, 2004
Cambodia is a country of myths and fables where gossip in the street becomes fast fact in minutes. Everyone remembers the mung bean fiasco of last year, the Thais demanding Angkor Wat or many different home remedies. Sorting fact from fiction could be a very lucrative business here if anyone found a good way to market it.
When I first arrived in Cambodia I spent a lot of time in Battambang. It has a quiet provincial charm and laidback ease which I have come to call home. It also has its fair share of myths and fables. I used to spend days driving around on my moto in idle discovery. Once I was in a bar there describing an adventure to Kampong Puiy Lake. My drinking partner looked at me, smiled and said, ”Bet you’ve never been to the Pepsi factory, that place gives me the shits.”
”Eh?” I said, cocking my ear in a jaunty manner. I had always assumed that Western corporations stayed away from Cambodia due to corruption. Furthermore, why would fizzy drinks scare this character?
”Yeah, its an old Pepsi factory from Lon Nol times. Now it lies empty. Scary place. Apparently the Thais had an exclusive contract with Coca Cola so Pepsi built a factory in Battambang and shipped the stuff across the border. You can find it on the road to Banon.”
I resolved to discover the place. It sounded like another pipe dream but I was intrigued.
The next morning I woke up, refreshed myself with a bowl of steaming bobor and hit the road. Six kilometers later, and there it was; a large 1960’s style complex of warehouses and buildings. On the largest sat the old Pepsi logo. I drove up to the entrance and parked my moto. It appeared that the factory was in use. A group of ladies were cleaning plastic bottles. In surprise they looked at me. In broken Khmer I complemented them on their Wellington boots and asked if I might look around.
”Aut pein ha!” (”No problem!”)
I walked into the second room and I stepped back in time. All the bottling machines were there, along with about 10,000 old bottles. There were classic old Pepsi bottles, green Miranda ones, Singha Soda, and Teem. I asked if I could take a couple and was given the go ahead. I then walked around some more. The building was suffering from age but other than a few bullet holes and shell damage to one of the warehouses, they seemed largely untouched.
When I got home I noticed that the bottles had ’72’ etched on their bottoms. I assumed that they never made it out of the warehouse, as the border area was no longer secure. The sense of history was palpable.
I decided to do some more research and talked to a friend of mine who spoke fluent Khmer. A few weeks later we headed back to the factory. As we wondered around the outside of the factory a band of giggling kids approached us. My friend asked one of them if he knew anything about the factory. ”Speak to my Dad,” he said.
A man of about sixty approached. He had a glint in his eye. My friend started chatting to him in Khmer. The fellow seemed delighted that anyone was interested in the factory. He told us he delivered water for the people who were working there now.
”Where do you live?” He waved at some shacks a few meters away.
”Have you lived here long?” He laughed and explained that he had always lived there.
”Do you remember the time when the factory made Pepsi?” He laughed again and told us that he had delivered the stuff around Battambang.
He didn’t remember if the product was shipped to Thailand but thought it was possible. The factory had closed when Pol Pot’s people came, he said. However, every Khmer New Year the people from Pol Pot opened the factory for five days and made ice. They gave the ice to the people, and then they shut the factory again. When the Vietnamese came they reopened the ice factory. When they left, the factory lay dormant until the water people came a few years ago.