How Khmers Make Ends Meet aka Blood is Thicker than Bor Bor

Posted on by Pedro Milladino


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Last time I gave a little personal insight to the polar opposite worlds of a high-up ranking family in the big city and a cow farming bunch in the wilds of Kampong Cham. Official sources state that almost 20% of the population live beneath the poverty rate of $0.93 a day. As wages for both government and private sector workers are, on paper, pitifully low in comparison with the price of living it is often baffling to see so many imported cars, scooters and latest model smart phones costing the equivalent of months and years salary to your average Bong Blogs. In a country obsessed with money along with ceremonies of extravagant pomp, where even the most simple of weddings runs into thousands of dollars that people shouldn’t be able to afford (and there are always at least 4 within earshot everyday). In a kingdom with no social security, few pension plans and where everything from education to healthcare costs, there lies the question: where do those greenbacks come from?

Without wanting to sound like Captain Obvious, here are a few ways the ‘simple’ people get by- those not rich/not poor; property owners with transport, sending their kids to private English schools, who could be described as the growing middle class.

Family

For Cambodians, family is everything, even if the old folks beat the skin off their hides everyday then sold them into slavery at an early age, most Khmer are still as loyal as a 3 fingered Yakuza to the clan. Blood is thicker than bor bor.

None of the western family ideals of ‘Thanks for all the birthday and Christmas presents, not to mention that food, holidays, decent education and driving to Scouts/pony riding every weekend, have some flowers on mother’s day, and please try to die before you need to go into a home and deplete the remainder of my dwindling inheritance’.

Instead Cambodian families are a little like an experimental Marxist collective, with most family earnings getting pooled into a central committee, headed by the top boss, who then distributes the cash about for school fees, grannies snake oil hospital pills and regular household outgoings.

If a wayward son or daughter becomes ostracized from the group, life gets pretty hard, pretty quick- it’s tough to survive solo out there, with drug dealing and prostitution often providing an alternative for a culture which craves close knit social interaction.

Remittances

A great proportion of Cambodians are living and working abroad. From settled immigrant spots in far off California to Australia, the increasingly popular factories of South Korea, to maids in Malaysia and Arab countries and neighbouring Thailand, increasing numbers of young Khmer are leaving, either with official documents or by unofficially sneaking across the porous western border. Many villages away from the factories and tourists, in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Pursat are inhabited only by the very young and very old, as those of working age leave, either to the cities or to other countries.

Despite the stories of modern day slavery along with physical, mental and sexual abuse suffered by many migrant workers, and run-ins with law enforcement on both sides of the border, the less newsworthy successes are not reported so much. “Koh Kong Man Held 10 Years as Fishing Boat Slave” and “Srey Leak Sodomised to Death by Pervy Arab’ make better headlines than “Man Goes to Korea, Works in Safe Environment Meeting Health and Safety Regulations and Sends Mother $1000 Each Month” and “Girl Takes Nanny Job- Saves Enough to Build House”.

A Cambodian factory worker in Korea can take home around $2000 a month, 20 times more than the average wage back home, a domestic help in Malaysia up to $300 (with free room and board) and unskilled worker in the Land of Smiles more than double than an unskilled worker in the Kingdom of Wonder.

The risks are often high, but the rewards are there. In 2012, the World Bank reported $256 million was sent to Cambodia as outsider remittances, then equal to 1.8% of GDP. In a 2013 Cambodia Daily interview So Phonnary, executive vice president in charge of operations at Acleda Bank PLC stated that an average of $81 million a month was transferred from abroad every month through that one banking group alone, suggesting the World Bank report was woefully underestimating the scale of remittance payments.

Services a little more under the radar than Western Union and Moneygram operate informal money transfer networks for those unable to meet the legal or literacy levels of regular channels push up the total further- making it impossible to know how much cash actually enters the country.

There are also the country bumpkins who move to the cities- to flip burgers, drive tuk-tuks, clean the streets and pretend to enjoy the company of foreign men (and some of these lovestruck tourists may send a regular Western Union ‘sponsorship’ from back home, or the ‘big score’, matrimony).

For the domestic transfer market, the money transfer company Wing had over $1 billion sent in-country last year, and have already surpassed that amount in 2014. This cash flows across from city to the provinces and from the provinces to the cities, paying for school fees and other services. Small business settlements use the service, bypassing banks, especially in the agricultural sector. To put this in context, the current GDP of Cambodia is around $14.08 billion.

Buy a badge

I personally know several police and army officers who buy their way into the service. With the badge they are allowed to draw a monthly wage, be eligible for a modest pension and often own a gun, without having to actually go to work for more than a day or two a month. This leaves an opportunity to moonlight in a second career, with teaching seemingly rather popular, along with running restaurants and guesthouses. Those with firepower can also be used as bodyguards, security and hire out AK47s to enthusiastic backpackers for the ultimate Facebook selfie.

Those who do decide to show up get another perk of the job – extracting small bribes from the populace for traffic infringements to rubber stamping bureaucratic paperwork.

Corruption

The big C. Cambodia ranks 160 out of 175 on the corruption index, which, when looked at in a positive note makes it joint number 15 in the world- which is where the Netherlands team sits on the FIFA world rankings. The competition at the top of the table is tough- Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan- those boys are top of their game. Obviously such results are only made possible by the diligent grafting efforts of the backroom boys and girls- civil servants charging for accepting documents, teachers who sell exam papers, demand ‘private’ tutoring and a judicial system more than willing to look the other way for a fee. Every little helps.

Scams

Welcome to Scambodia. Whilst various tricks are pulled on tourists, there are other, homegrown ‘back of a lorry’ methods to make a bit of extra dough. One example is the petrol scam.

Some of those giant Tela/Sokimex tankers roaring up and down the country have less than scrupulous drivers, who, at predesignated points on their late night route will siphon off some of the goods and sell to an accomplice for 2000r a litre. By next morning the hooky gas is already in old Pepsi bottles and being flogged for 4500r upwards.

I knew another woman with 20/20 vision, who got an extra small payment from her husband’s military pay packet by pretending to be blind. She’d go into an office every so often wearing shades and stumble around to convince the guy behind the desk her claim was genuine, before going back to her day job of sleeping and shouting at her underlings in a restaurant kitchen.

Selling

Cambodia is a nation of shopkeepers. With eating a great national past time and with fridge-freezer ownership low, markets selling fresh goods are in almost every village. Profits aren’t the highest, but steady and when combined with the rest of the collective, boosts a family’s coffers.

There are also the countless dry good shops- stocked up with non-perishables in the front room or in a shed outside by the road. One small stall sold over 1000 boxes of beer over the 3 day Khmer New Year period, which, at 500r a can profit netted them over $3000- not bad for a few days booze flogging and forget about paying tax on any of it.

Such shops and stalls are often staffed by a daughter of marriageable age – a case of ‘My takalog shake brings all the boys the yard’.

Usury

As house/landowners, many are eligible for bank credit and micro-finance loans- great for financing small business start-ups, keeping the wolf from the door until the rice crop comes in, buying a car or blowing it all on the eldest son’s wedding. Although with the interest rates starting from 10% it’s easy for the curse of debt cycle to kick in. A $120 monthly salary can get a new motorcycle on the never never, with monthly payments of $90 over 2 years.

For those needing quick cash, there are the money lenders in the markets. This is another small business model Khmer love. When they come into some money it’s swiftly lent out in small amounts to neighbours and colleagues in a friendly loan shark kid of way. Socially accepted as it is, and with family ties and face coming into play, the payback is pretty much guaranteed along with the added interest- making money with money.

Farming

Cows- those horned signs of wealth across the developing world, are worth a grand each. Get a few calves every year, with minimal maintenance and self-sufficient rice farmers get an extra income. Chickens breed like rabbits out here, and as long as they stay away from avian flu can bring in a few more pennies for the pot. Pigs and fish are very popular, but require more expensive feeding and can be more susceptible to disease.

Living Frugally

Middle income Cambodians live communally in modest houses, cook, eat and together and rarely socialise or go on holiday. And boy, they know how to haggle over a couple of hundred Riel. Dining out on special occasions is usually a group suki-soup type affair or involves cheap snacks. Weddings are the exception- an all you can eat table buffet boozefest, with added disco dancing and singing for a reasonable donation to the cause.

Pawning

Gold is big business- everyone loves the shiny stuff, which is a currency in its own right. Worn as a sign of wealth, it can quickly be hocked or sold for hard cash whenever the need arises. Pawnshops will take phones, laptops and anything else of value as collateral on a monthly loan.

With no questions asked, these places are where those iPhones, watches and other items of value that walk out with last night’s tryst from the Walkabout end up.

Marriage

If a daughter is a looker (or even a lucky hooker) and manages to score a hubby way up the economic ladder- BINGO! Husbands are expected to help out the in-laws (as many westerners find out the day after the tent goes down). Dowries paid for a bride ain’t what they used to be, but are not unheard of, so plenty of daughters, especially hot ones, can be profitable.

Cambodia’s history is a bit messed up to say the least. The notion of money reflects this too. In an over simplistic nutshell……

Year dot- end of 19th century – Tiny elite of nobility looks down on a peasant class, with devout Buddhism teaching that poverty and suffering are the ways to enlightenment.

Colonialism- For 90 years French colonialists show off how cool it is to own shit- cars, radios , nice clothes and cognac. A rise in a petty bourgeois, better educated and western wannabies, like the characters U Po Kyin and Dr Veraswami in Orwell’s Burmese Days (OK wrong imperialists and wrong country, but I’ve not read any Froggy stuff about the same compare).

Independence- The ‘golden age’, where a growing elite drive cars, have servants and enjoyed the high life, whilst resentment simmers out in the provinces.

Civil war/Khmer Rouge- Everything gets turned on its head. A peasant uprising culminates with a ban on personal property and banks being blown up. The end of money.

Vietnamese Occupation- The commies come to town and try to return order. Money is back, but strictly controlled, besides there wasn’t much to buy.

UNTAC- Commies go home and are replaced by wedged up soldiers and NGOs. As the Brits complained about their transatlantic cousins during WW2, ‘Overpaid, over-sexed and over here’. The US dollar is king and everything is for sale or rent.

Late 90’s-present- No more war, carpetbaggers take advantage of the messed up situation. Free market capitalism and good old fashioned exploitation makes some very rich. Greed becomes good in a most un-Buddhist way and as those at the bottom slide down, more and more claim their small slice of the pie.

As Rolls-Royce opens its first showroom in the capital and many bemoan the lack of class and manners displayed by the nouveau riche, as beggars and street people are being trucked off for ‘re-education’, it is the people in the middle- quietly getting by who are the real benchmark for development and also those most at risk by any sudden changes.

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9 Responses to How Khmers Make Ends Meet aka Blood is Thicker than Bor Bor

  1. Driftless says:

    Great read, very informative.

    It’d be interesting to read some of that “froggy” colonial literature. An article/booklist about that would be interesting.

  2. Ken svay says:

    There was the book about the bad frenchmen.

  3. Pra Ngb AIt says:

    Wanna buy a copy of Burmese Days, Driftless?

  4. miranda kerr says:

    This is what is happening to many southeast asian countries where the working people had to move out of their country to earn a living.

  5. Steivan says:

    Spot-on. Thank you for this lucid and down-to-earth analysis.

  6. Louise Belhavel says:

    There is a book in English called ‘Cambodge’ about the Protectorate era. That’s all I can recall right now.

  7. Ben Gregson says:

    The 2008 book ‘Cambodge’ is by Penny Edwards and can be bought in the Monument Books bookstores. It is fairly expensive and there are no bootleg copies on sale at present.

    The book covers the years 1860 to 1945, but does not – regrettably – include any photographs of dear departed Sihanouk declaring the independence of Cambodia under Japanese auspices in March 1945.

  8. Sokha says:

    Keep up with new article. We need diverse perspectives on Cambodia. It could open both foreign and local’s mind.

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