Phnom Penh 2016

In Essays, Travel

This essay is meant as a type of personal meditation on my last two or so years living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This is a high-level summary of all the discussions that I’ve had with everyone – from some of the top business leaders all the way down to taxi drivers. There isn’t much form to this essay, I just wrote it as it came out, but this is my view of Phnom Penh 2016.

I moved to Phnom Penh at twenty-two years of age, and this was my first time living away from home, and I had a shoestring budget and only a handful of possessions, and no idea of what was actually going to happen.

It has been perhaps the largest and most meaningful life change I’ve done, moving to the other side of the world where almost everything is completely different, and being forced to adapt quickly to keep my head above the water.

Cambodia is a strange country, because while it is most definitely part of the third world, it is also in many ways leapfrogging over many of the advancements that have been made in economically more advanced countries.

The growth here has been quite incredible, but living here is it difficult to understand where the money is coming from. There is very little that is made in Cambodia, with the main exception of rice and textiles, and yet there has been a boom of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) which has lead to the construction, or planned construction, of some quite incredible and ambitious projects, especially when you consider that the vast majority of the population don’t even have access to a toilet and a third of school lack basic sanitation. 

Of course, I am insulated to all of the really harsh poverty by living in the centre of the capital, but as soon as you leave the centre you can see the city for what it is, a dusty, ugly, badly-developed mess full of cars, motorbikes, shacks, and unregulated construction.

There is very little sense of the beauty left of what was once considered “The Pearl of Asia”.

If you drive outside the city you will pass huge factories that employ tens of thousands of workers at wages as low as $120/month (and not so long ago that used to be $60 or $80 per month.).

I have heard first person accounts of the working conditions in these factories, and while I am sure some factories are better than others, it appears that practices such as extremely long work hours without breaks, boring work, having to ask permission to even go to the toilet, and fainting from exhaustion and heat are common occurrences.

This is the dark side of the consumer society that the West promotes. These factories are making items for large well-known brands.

So many of the younger women who work in these factories end up in prostitution as it a much better alternative for them in terms of income and working conditions, and you will find the entire Riverside area in Phnom Penh full of bars that make up the so-called red-light district.

The girls in these bars work there out of their own free will, and you can visit these bars and purchase them a drink and have a chat, and the girls take a cut of the money for their drink. They normally make around $1.5 per drink, and on a good night can expect to have as many as fifteen to twenty drinks, so already the money is much better than the factories.

The customer can also choose to take the girl out of bar by paying what is called a bar fine ($10 to $15) and then can take the girl to a hotel and pay a negotiable rate for sex This would normally run into the range of $30 to $100, depending on the girl and the services offered. So you can see how this is far more profitable for the girls involved that working 14 hours a day in a factory.

Of course, not all the girls in the bars are prostitutes, and not all prostitutes work in the bars. Some girls work in the street, and others hang out at the nightclubs, while others work in KTVs, which is something that the author has yet to experience – I don’t like singing.

What I find interesting about all this is how this is not forced prostitution in the sense that the girls are forced to have sex with someone. They are completely free to do what they want, and they are not “owned’ by a pimp or anything similar, and yet perhaps they still do have the economic pressure to work and sleep with old men, even if they don’t want to, because the small amount of the money the earn doing that is still so much better than the alternative in a factory, or even in a restaurant, where an English-speaking waitress can expect to earn $120 to $150 per month for working one shift a day six days a week.

The fact is, that Cambodia is an incredibly young country. The median age is twenty-five, which happens to be my age right now, and most of the population is uneducated, and even the education that does is exist is of poor quality and completely incomparable to a Western education.

I like to think that an easy way to understand the Cambodian young people is to knock off five to seven years off their age when dealing with them. So a twenty-year-old Cambodian man or woman will act like their fifteen-year-old Western counterpart.

This means that there is still large uneducated workforce, and there are more and more companies starting up that require an educated workforce, but can’t find the skill sets that they are looking for in their workers. What I have noticed is that this means you end up with a stratum of unqualified young people earning salaries way beyond their capabilities (around $1000 to $1500 per month) purely because they can type out an email in vaguely understandable English and can turn up to work on time.

There are also some incredible success stories. I’ve seen a guy who was working for $80/month as a clerk in a convenience store land himself in a position to earn $500/month through sheer hard work, perseverance, and a pinch of luck. In the space of two years, he is literally earning six times more than before.

Before I move onto the business environment in Phnom Penh, it’s worth taking the time to discuss the Cambodian people themselves.

There is always the same word that comes to mind when I think of Cambodians, and that is: smiles.

They’ve got huge smiles on their faces. Perhaps this can be partly accredited to the fact that they have had a tough and terrible history in the last forty years, and so there is a general sense of relief in joining the rest of the world in growing and improving, instead of massacring each other like animals.

Or perhaps it’s the fact that in a growing economy, where almost everyone has some form of employment (even if it’s not always so desirable…), there is little not to smile about.

Another idea is that it is all to do with the temperature and the climate. Because it is always so damn hot, a certain type of something takes hold of you. It’s difficult to label it laziness, but a certain sense of slowness does definitely prevail, and I’ve previously written about how I believe that slowness goes hand in hand with happiness.

The fact of the matter is, you just need to say good morning to a Cambodian and they will break out their best smile for you, and that’s quite amazing.

Of course, Cambodia has been quite isolated for a long time from the rest of the world, and the previously-mentioned lack of education does taint them in a different light when viewed through foreign eyes. One could argue that they smile because they simply don’t know much. As the old saying goes:

Ignorance is bliss.

Whenever I have tried to speak to Cambodians about the bigger questions in life, like what is out there in the universe, what is the meaning of life, how did life start, what is a good life, a reply I have often received is that “these type of conversations make my head hurt”.

It is very strange to live in a society where most people don’t know what gravity is, even though they live with the results each and every day. It is almost like going back in time.

And perhaps that leads us to one of the main issues in living in Phnom Penh, and that is the lack of much, if any, intellectual activity. It’s rare to find someone, especially a local, to have a deep conversation about a topic that *truly* matters, and not just the usual chit chat. For me, writing has been what has partly saved me from this, and has allowed me to live my life here without suffering too many of the consequences of living with what we may be able to label as “simple people”.

In part, I guess there is also a sense of jealousy when I view the Cambodian lifestyle. There is a small noodle shop that I have frequented for a couple of years, and it’s run by a Cambodian family, and the children are sitting at the tables doing their homework and playing on their phones, a baby is crying in the corner, and the daughters and sons serve the customers and hand make the noodles for each order. It’s quite a pleasure to watch, and it is also incredible to see how content this family is. They are all smiles, and you can see that the simplicity of their life, and their lack of ambition, allows them to live well. These people are not looking to visit beaches in the south of France, they are not looking to become millionaires. They just exist, and they are happy because of that.

There is a lot to be said about that attitude, and while there are no accurate statistics that I can draw on, I bet the level of psychological illness in Cambodia is far lower than in economically advanced countries where the rat race rains supreme.

One the amazing things about taking all your stuff and moving to the other side of the world is that you realise that you are just as much a product of your environment as other people are of theirs. In Asia, for instance, it is acceptable to eat any type of meal at any time of day, while in Europe we wouldn’t dream of having fish soup first thing in the morning. Does this mean that we are refined and that Asians are animals? Or perhaps is it the case that we are full of traditional rules that don’t make any sense, and in Asia, they take the pragmatic view that if it’s available, and you want it, then take it.

So, to steer the conversation back to business, just for a short while. I’ve seen countless foreign businessmen come in and pour money into a business, for it to only shut after a few months of operations. The amount of those horrible SUVs driving around the centre can fool an unknowing visitor in thinking that the streets of Phnom Penh will be soon paved in gold, but this is a grave mistake. Firstly, the economic output of the country is tiny. Cambodia has a GDP of around $16B, which is less than the 2015 Q1 profit of Apple, to put things into perspective. This makes is completely impossible for anything resembling a modern functional state to exist. Large infrastructure projects are completely off-budget, and can only be completed with the aid from foreign powers. Corruption is rampant everywhere, and I believe that Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. I’ve experienced this in my own small way when I’ve been stopped by the police for riding my little Honda Julio without the following:

  • A helmet
  • A License
  • Insurance
  • A Number Plate
  • Any form of mechanical checkup.

In a normal country, this would definitely be grounds for the sequestration of my vehicle, and perhaps even arrest. In Cambodia, this was quietly and quickly sorted out with a $3 bribe to the policeman in question.

In fact, by law in Cambodia, the policemen can pocket up to 70% of an official fine, even if most will often just take bribes on the sides.

Strangely enough, every policeman I have ever seen (and yes, they appear to be all men) all look the same. It appears that policemen are chosen due to a host physical factors that ensure a strange conformity. It’s almost like there is only one policeman in the whole of Phnom Penh, but he has figured out how to be in one hundred places at the same time.

And so, it’s easy to be fooled in Phnom Penh. Cambodians overspend on their cars, to the point where they will happily buy a $150,000 SUV, and then they will park it the ground floor living room of their dilapidated house in a dirty side street. I’ve heard that this is something that is common in many parts of Asia because they value the impression they give when they are outside of their homes, and they don’t mind living in squalor to achieve this.

So this means that a Cambodian with say, $500,000, in the bank, will happily spend $150,000 on a car, which would be ludicrous in Europe. In fact, one thing I noticed when I went back to Italy for a few months, was how even people who could easily afford expensive cars didn’t necessarily purchase them, because of the negative connotations toward outwardly showing your wealth. In Cambodia there are no such negative connotations – “if you’ve got it, flaunt it”, that’s the ruling mantra.

And so this gives the illusion that Phnom Penh is full of rich people, when in fact, it is made up of 50,000 rich people, and close to two million poor ones. There is no middle class, yet.

And yet this is the illusion that builds towers, like the Vattanac tower that quite literally towers and looms over the skyline, being the only true skyscraper in town, and yet even that is currently essentially empty. At night, you can see only a few windows lit up, and when I visited the shopping mall on a Sunday morning, I felt like I was on a movie set, I was almost the only person there.

And yet, the economic is growing at around 7%, and this provides ample opportunities for quick-witted local and foreign entrepreneurs to make a good living and provide jobs for local community, but the trick is to start lean and find your niche, and then grow rapidly to keep anyone else from encroaching on your market.

I remember when I first visited Phnom Penh in 2010, the riverside was completely undeveloped, it was just a dusty road with huts, and also, most of the roads were not what you would generally call a road, but when I came back a few years later that had all changed, with the riverside having been turned into a quite pleasurable type of Ramblas. This is a testament to the fast-paced changes that are possible in this slow city.

As a foreigner, if you do manage to carve yourself a decent living here, you live very well indeed. The city is small, and you can get anywhere in five or ten minutes by motorbike. Everything is still quite cheap, although rents have been increasing, but I’m quite confident that will soon come to an abrupt end. The women are beautiful, and intrigued by the few foreigners that do live here, and quite available. Because junk food is not something that has arrived en-mass here, the girls still retain their slender shapes that make them look like models. They have beautiful straight black hair, and the Cambodian eyes are something that you can lose an afternoon staring into. The faces, well they vary, but they all have prominent cheekbones and you see many stunning examples.

So here is me hoping that this all doesn’t get fucked up. There is construction work absolutely everywhere, but I am seeing very little in terms of planning for all these people that will have to live in these condominiums. The population density will shoot up, but there is no public transport and the roads are already beginning to get more and more congested, so I’m wondering how this problem is going to be solved. I have heard that Jakarta is a complete nightmare in terms of traffic, and it would be a shame if Phnom Penh developed the same problems, as this city has an air of calm to it, and this would completely ruin it.

On a Sunday morning, there is this beautiful sense of calm in the city. Walking along the riverside watching people exercise and join in the open air classes gives a real sense of community. Taking shortcuts through the pagodas, which often take up an entire city block, is really a wonderful experience. While I have written before (negatively) about the monks here in Cambodia, the pagodas are really something special.

Buddhist Temple in Phnom Penh

There is a feeling of stepping back to a simpler time, a time where there were fewer distractions, and fewer worries. I’m sure this is just the typical “Good Old Days” syndrome kicking in, even if I wasn’t alive in the simpler times I am talking about.

Another great way to soak the atmosphere is to sit at Metro Hassakan, a restaurant/bar that during the day serves good coffee, and is a great place to sit down, read a book, and soak up the atmosphere of the riverside. From there you can watch the strange assortment of traffic go by, from trucks full of workers standing up little cattle to single motorbikes transporting an entire family, or even pigs.

Yes, multiple pigs.

Metro is a pretty cool place, I go there a lot. They have the strange policy of having the waitresses wearing black dresses with mini skirts even during the day time, so you can be ordering a coffee and some eggs for brunch and you are being served by a girl that looks like she belongs working in a nightclub. And it’s overpriced, but the location is really worth it, in my opinion.

Moving onto the expats who are living in Phnom Penh, well, they are a mixed bunch. I also don’t like the word expat or expatriate. Why is it that anyone coming to live in Europe tends to be called an immigrant, while when it’s rich white people moving to third world countries they are suddenly labelled expats? I really don’t like the word.

The vast majority of the expats living here are 35 or older, and they fall into a variety of groups:

  • NGO workers
  • English Teachers
  • Sexpats
  • Businessmen

The NGO workers don’t seem to know much about what is going on, and they also tend to generally be American. They are often here on fixed time contracts of one or two years, and then they leave. They tend to stay within their groups of other NGO workers, and my feeling is that they really experience Cambodia, but just spend their entire time at foreign-owned places. Obviously, this is a massive generalisation, but it holds some truth.

The English teachers tend to be people who were sick of living in The West, and decided to give it all up and go and live somewhere else, or else they simply couldn’t find a job at home and came to Cambodia to try their luck. Many people start in Cambodia as English teachers and then eventually find something else to do or start a business. I am somewhat of a rarity in that I have never taught English.

The Sexpats are retired white men who are here for the cheap life, and especially for the cheap women. They can be found at a number of hangouts on the riverside drinking $1.5 beer, and if you hang out at Metro on a Friday night you will see a tuk-tuk (a motorbike with a cart behind that can hold four people) every few minutes that has an old white guy with a young Cambodian woman with too much makeup, a tight dress, and six inch heels.

The businessmen group can actually be subdivided into two categories. Those who started their own business, and those who work at high-level management positions in businesses that are already established. I fall into the former category but have many friends in the latter category too. There is a strong dislike of the NGO workers and English teachers, who are seen as somewhat unproductive leeches in Cambodia while our work here is what is helping drive the country forward by providing jobs and opportunities for Cambodians.

There is actually somewhat of a mix between the Sexpat group and the businessmen group. A lot of business in done in the closed doors of the dozens of the KTVs in the city, and the lines of Range Rovers and other luxury cars parked outside are a testament to this. I had an absurd evening one time when a CEO of a major local company started to describe how for the last few years he had been buying the virginity of seventeen-year-old girls. He would pay the family directly and then have the right to deflower the girl, and he had purchased an apartment in the centre of the city for this purpose, as he had a house and a family that lived on the outskirts. This is the time of behaviour that in most of the rest of the world would land you behind bars for decades, and here was a man practically showing off his achievement over a beer.

Welcome to Cambodia. 

There aren’t actually that many foreigners living here at the moment, but I am sure that will change in the next five to ten years, and the city is already growing to accommodate for this future influx of people from all the world.

Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh 2016

My favourite place in the entire city might just have to be Raffles le Royale, a hotel that feels like an oasis of calm and cool amongst the heat and dust and noise and bustle of the city. It has, in my opinion, one of the nicest swimming pools, and it is also a great place to strike up a conversation as many of the guests there come from a certain type of class, and usually have interesting stories or occupations. I find it fun to tell them all about Phnom Penh and Cambodia, and hear about their opinion of the city during their short stay. I often hear that as a tourist, there is very little to do in Phnom Penh, and that is correct. You’ve got the Royal Palace, the Genocide Museum, a walk along the riverside, and fairly generic shopping mall, and a few other historical monuments, but that is pretty much it.

It feels strange to be part of this city at a time of great change, and it makes me wonder if there is anywhere else where I would rather be in the world, right now.