A Tale of 2 Cambodias


Disparity of income is nothing new and we are told seemingly on a weekly basis that the chasm between rich and poor is widening further and further around the globe. The system involving the rich getting richer, whilst the poor get poorer has been around ever since 14th century Jewish gentleman sat around on banca (benches) in Venice and began loaning out gold to adventurous mercantile types. Thus began the merchant, (later middle) class, of those who worked hard and reaped the rewards or lost all trying.

The economic boom across Asia, from 80s Japan, to the tiger economies and the phenomenal growth rate of China has trickled down to former whipping boy states within this region, and others across Africa and Latin America.

Despite recessions, de-clawed tigers, stock market crashes and sub-prime bubbles bursting, the worldwide middle class is expanding, and is expected to double from 2 to 4 billion by 2030.

This rapid sense of change is more than noticeable on the streets of Phnom Penh, where luxury SUVs jostle for space with a million moto-scooters, tuk-tuks, bicycles and handcarts.

Chairman Mao’s grand idea of a watch wearing, radio owning, bicycle driving populace has altered over time:now only a Honda Dream, colour TV and daily pork sets the bar. Without these are the poor, and those with more are the middle class; those with even more are the rich.

Inside the Phnom Penh bubble, Cambodian society could be described as neo-Dickensian, where street urchins beg money for their Fagins and bags of glue, whilst rich industrialists cavort from restaurant to KTV (the new gentleman’s clubs) in modern versions of horse drawn carriages.

Outside the cities of ‘Penh, ‘Reap, ‘Ville and ‘Bang are the provincial Kampongs and their ilk, dusty, dirty and small. The Range Rover badge of opulent wealth downgrades to a 15 year old Toyota Camry and Honda Scoopy’s to Super Cubs.

Between these market towns, along the main highways and down the rough tracks which sprout off into the fields and hills are even smaller, dustier and dirtier markets, serving the small, dirty and dusty villages in the locality; it is here that 10 million rural Khmer live. And, although the revolution of electricity, television and the internal combustion engine has arrived for many (but not all), it is still a few centuries, and a world away from Costa Coffee clones, paved roads, LED billboards and vague attempts at infrastructure in the capital. Call it the postmodern-middle ages, if you need to label things.

Will they be part of the future 2bn ‘middle classes’, benefiting from global demand for rice or will the emerging BRICs swallow these numbers like a hungry free market basking shark, leaving the downtrodden where they’ve always been- at the foot of shit mountain?

Well, there’s the premise for the upcoming tale. Enough all too gloomy facts of life, so depressing to those living in the white man’s rather nice BKK1 ghetto. Feel free to ignore, or mutter ‘Well ain’t that just a terrible shame’, sup an ice cold brewski over the air-conned noise of Sexy Pretty Lady Bar, as the cute 18 year old daughter of a dirt farming family in Svay Rieng massages your shoulders in the hope of a decent tip.

We didn’t break the world, did we? We aren’t here to save, but to observe. So here’s a little story from the other weekend I’d like to share with the other non-breakers.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, it was Friday (the best of the working week) and 6.45pm (the worst time to drive into the city). I was on my way to visit Micheal, the teenage Khmer kid, heir to a manufacturing dynasty, whose family pay me a not-so-unreasonable sum to go over and chat prepositions a few times a week.

Behind the heavy gates, razor wire and motion detection CCTV cameras lies a villa with all the trappings of exuberant wealth- German cars, an SUV as big as my house, a private soundproofed KTV disco, an aquarium with fish large enough for Seaworld or a Bond villain, y’know, normal stuff. In the gardens a gang of bodyguards, armed to the teeth, sit around smoking, drinking beer and chopping up ganja into dust with a rather scary looking knife. One is particularly proud of his hand-cannon, because like Dirty Harry, he packs a .44 Magnum ‘Khm’er punk, make my day’.

Lucky young Mikey has it all- gadgets and gizmos, a private education, countless foreign holidays to exotic locations, and is a nice, bright lad to boot. His life is one viewed through rose tinted windows of chauffeured transport, from school gates to gated compound and high society events. He has never even seen the countryside, save through the glass en route to Kampong Som, and has grown up with a fear of rural ‘savages’.

It’s no more Michael’s fault to be born into Cambodian privilege any more than the kid born on a fishing boat to undocumented Vietnamese halfway along the Tonle Sap. Although, like most rich brats, he will probably never know the realities of life outside his gates or a 5* hotel.

The next day it was time to see the other side of the coin- a wedding (hooray), in an off-the-map village in Kampong Cham (double hooray), for my layabout unemployed brother in law (thrice hooray).

Not wanting to travel with all the Oms, Bpus and assorted children in the big yellow minibus, I elected to drive myself (mistake 1).

The road to KC is terrible – it felt like my little Suzuki was in a scene from Star Wars, podracing through the desert planet of Tatooine. The heat, wind and dust lashing out and entering every bodily orifice.

Once off the ‘good’ road, it was a rough pootle down a dirt track, through freshly planted rice paddies and palm oil trees before finally arriving at village wedding ground zero.

I hate weddings with a passion, but have to attend the over-the-top events, where booze and food flows freely whilst families bankrupt themselves in the name of face. I attend, reluctantly, safe in the knowledge that after a skinful, there’s a bed waiting. No such luck this time.

“Yes, there’s a guest house,” I was told, once again putting better judgment to one side and choosing to believe. There wasn’t, not for 17 crow flying kilometres anyway. The nearest ‘town’, Pa Av, had the obligatory market, the bank, KTV, but no cheap hotel (Where do married locals bang hookers in this dump or teenagers go to shag and smoke crack? S’kun town, apparently.)

After a hearty meal of prahoc, and being told there was no pre-wedding night disco (I had to buy my own beer and there was no ice- the ignominy!) I took a trip out to Pa Av so the Khmer could top their prahoc with some boiled duck foetus. It was time to stock up on Black Panther for the long night ahead.

Back on the farm, the oldies and young folk had taken up battle formation in a one palm-thatched shack- sprawled in all manner of directions asleep or dozing on mats thrown over a rough open bamboo floor. The ability for anytime/anywhere snoozing is a wonder to behold.

Woefully ill-prepared and unequipped, it seemed like the only course of action would be to hunker down underneath the house, with the farm animals, like a grown up little lord Jesus. Any hammocks had long been commandeered, so as a cow scratched it’s head on a bicycle, Blackie P was knocked back, along with a couple of tablets reserved for emergencies.

The heat, insects dining on fresh barang blood and hardwood bed/table did nothing to aid a comfortable night’s sleep, broken by a pre-dawn wake up howling of a very cheap loudhailer. Breakfast was rice gruel bor-bor, with grey lumps, which could have been meat.

What always strikes me hardest out in the sticks is the number of children. Here they were- a ragtag posse of them, dirty and undernourished, indeed, but not appearing outwardly unhappy. Several dozen piled into the tent, memorized by the comedy entertainment of a traditional hair cutting ceremony, hosted by neak kak sork, basically a man and woman paid to take the piss out of the bride, groom and guests. I looked at the kids next to me, sitting atop each other – scarred knees, scabs, filthy clothes and yellowed eyes of jaundice. They were the very definition of poverty.

Yes, the kids squirmed with mirth as I was made to dance about and say stupid things by the comedians, and as soon the the skit was done, they departed in a mass exodus.

Now here’s my point (there had to be one somewhere), whilst the 21st century has brought change – both economic and social – to Cambodia’s cities, a drive in to the boonies reveals millions of Khmer struggling in abject poverty. Whilst Michael and his elite ilk are being groomed for future success, those grubby kids in Kampong Cham will be the next generation of alcoholic rice farmers, factory workers and ‘Sexy Pretty Lady’ bargirls.

Development is here, but most of the country doesn’t even realize, and what’s more, neither do they seem to care.

Pedro Milladino

11 thoughts on “A Tale of 2 Cambodias

  1. andy Reply

    If you’re going to namecheck ‘Jewish gentlemen’, you might want to check out the Prophets condemning the rich for ripping off the poor a good two millennia previously!

  2. FAD Reply

    Is it your observation that the poor are any less contented, satisfied and happy than the rich? I have never found his to be the case.

    • pedro Reply

      Of course the notion of happiness is subjective. Poor people can be happy, just as the rich can be manic depressives.

      Just ‘cos they’re smiling, don’t always mean they’re happy.

      Centuries of peasant revolts where landlord heads end up skewered on a pitchfork should be proof of that. How far will people be pushed?

      • FAD Reply

        The ‘notion’ of happiness? Good grief! However, from the dissatisfied tone of querulous complaint that informs your article, it does seem possible that the sentiments of contentment, satisfaction and joy are indeed notional for you. In which case commiserations.

        One small point. As one who is familiar with using pitchforks I am sure nobody would employ one to display a severed head. The historical record usually refers to a pike being used for this purpose. Failing which a sharpened stave would be more useful than the agricultural implement you mistakenly suggest.

  3. Greg Reply

    You’re a great writer, Pedro. A great piece, but wish you had written a bit more about conclusions, going forward, etc. . . .

  4. CM Reply

    Another cracker from Pedro. Your turn of phrase makes me piss myself mate, keep it up old son!

  5. Riptides Reply

    Replace rice paddies with corn, huts with trailers, rice-gruel with grits, and you’d be talking about much of the Rural US these days. The US is on it’s own downward spiral of Rich getting more, everyone else struggling while getting less, then step away from the Metropolitan areas, and you’ll find, right below the surface, some uncanny parallels between the states and many 3rd world nations.

    • pedro Reply

      Interesting point. Not being a septic tank, I have only limited knowledge about ‘po crackers’ and ‘po n-words’ etc in the most developed of nations.

      Do American poor feel even more disenfranchised given that they have the dream stuffed down their face every day (then there are those who once had it and lost all due to ill informed financial planning etc) than a 3rd world peasant who’s family have never had anything, yet see others with the right connections making all and shitting from a great height?

      And, perhaps, maybe not Cambodia, but as other countries such as China and India becoming the new economic forces over this century will see an interesting change in the world as we know it, we must begin to see more resentment from the ‘developed’ poor?

      However, as FAD points out, there is no link between poverty and unhappiness.

  6. Mark Reply

    Good writing Pedro, you know you love Cambodia and wouldn’t have your life any other way!

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