Saturday, February 27, 2010

Life in the Countryside

Statistics on developing countries make for grim, if not outright depressing, reading. Cambodia is burdened with a poverty rate of officially 35% (CIA World Fact Book). Poverty is determined by income, and the threshold in Cambodia is $3 per day, sometimes it is put as low as $2 a day, which, of course, would translate into a lower percentage of poor people. Comparing this with the U. S., where the poverty rate is 12% and the line is drawn at around $12,000 p.a. for a 4-person household, one must logically come to the conclusion that life in Cambodia, especially in the countryside, is permanent economic distress and marked by deprivation and hunger on a large scale.

I cannot nor do I want to contradict those statistics. I assume that they are close to the truth. But the question arises whether all these people, especially the rural population, live a life of deprivation and hunger. I am pretty sure this holds true for the urban poor. After all most of them came to the city to find the jobs they couldn’t find in their villages. A lot of them end up on the streets, living in ramshackle huts in unsanitary, and by modern standards, subhuman conditions (what we then call slums). Especially in times like these jobs have become even scarcer. Even the people having a job, working in the garment industry, for instance, can’t be the envy of the rural people when eight or more girls share one room.

But what about the rural population? My frequent trips to the countryside give me a different impression from what one could read from statistics. Naturally, these impressions are subjective, limited in scope and by all means not representative. On my recent trip to Kratie province, I visited several villages along the Mekong River. I got into closer contact with the people there as many families are my wife’s relatives – some closer, some not so close.

What struck me the most was the cohesion of those families, and their relative happiness. Sure, not one owns a car, but they all owned a motorcycle. They live in traditional wooden houses on stilts (the stilts are nowadays mostly of concrete). They till their fields, planting rice, corn, vegetables, and sometimes cassava. Many of them own at least one cow, a few own pigs, and chickens, most of them of the scrawny variety, are ever-present. Closer to the house the ubiquitous mango trees and other fruit trees round out the rural setting. If somebody needs help, the neighbors, whether family or not, are there to help. Crime is almost completely unknown along that stretch of road from Kratie town to the 100-pillar pagoda; certainly no major crimes like murder, rape, burglary, etc. No one knows of any those having happened in their lifetime. Of course, there is the occasional theft, but generally, it is really only petty offenses. Second wives, a widespread practice not only among better-off men in the city, are not tolerated. They had better leave the community.

Whomever I met, they all have enough to eat; one just needed to look at them. In contrast, an uncle who is not as fortunate, having been a city dweller who is now retired and lives in Siem Reap, hardly scrapes by. He took with him about 100 kg of rice his rural relatives had given him.

The villages are without electricity or running water. For power, they make do with batteries. There is a central charging station that runs a generator where they take their flat batteries and exchange them for a fully charged one. Water is collected in those big earthen jars or in drums. Cooking is done on a small wood-fired stove. In all respects they are pretty much self-sufficient. They grow their own food, and as such prove the fact that 60% or so of the rural population lives on subsistence farming. Any surplus is sold on the market or bartered for other necessary goods. Odd jobs provide extra income. Young mothers give birth with the help of the local mid-wife, and for illnesses that are more serious, they have to go to Kratie town, of course.

Despite this rather basic life-style they are a happy lot – at least the one I encountered. Laughter is heard often and no occasion for a celebration is left out. If a family member from the city comes to visit this is grounds for a big family feast, which may be attended by half the village, since somehow they are all related, either by blood or by marriage.

Am I propagating that country life is good and we need not worry too much about these people? Of course not. But one really needs to second-guess those statistics. These people still live a happy and contented life. It has been like that for ages and in that sense that they are accustomed to it. Naturally, they would like to have only a few of the amenities a city dweller enjoys. But given the past of the country, what they have now is a far cry from what they had when they were still children. They – for one - do see this as progress, as slow as it is. But it will get better. About that, they are very sure. So why worry about it now when life is comparatively good now? They have a roof over their heads, enough food to eat, and a good family. To them this is more than enough for now. Their Buddhist belief additionally fortifies this attitude. I asked many of them whether they would like to live in the city. Not a one wanted to leave their village – to visit, yes, but to live, never. But, of course, given the right job they might change their minds, especially the younger generation. But even they have heard by now that life in the city is pretty hard. So for now, they mostly stay where they are.

Rural Setting
Celebration Inaugurating a New House
Ever Present Boom Boxes
The New Houses

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Tuk-Tuk Driver

Usually I don’t really like Tuk-Tuk drivers. Every once in a while I go to the riverside to have breakfast at the Al Fresco at the FCC. Of course, this is a prime spot for them to pick up business. But their constant ‘Tuk-tuk, sir? Have good price’, etc., etc., really gets on my nerves. They even do it although I just arrived by car, which they couldn’t have missed. But then again, this is their livelihood and how else can they compete in this overcrowded field of business? And, of course, it is one way to survive in this deplorably poor country. Sometimes I just wonder how all these motodups and tuk-tuks can make any money at all in view of the seemingly thousands and thousands of motodups and tuk-tuks roaming the streets of Phnom Penh, and elsewhere.

But recently I met a tuk-tuk driver whom one can call a true entrepreneur in his own right and whose efforts and endeavors engendered the greatest admiration in me, not only for him but for all those small businessmen in the mini-transportation business. He may be a singular example with his success so far. With his show of ambition, perseverance, honesty, uprightness, and keen sense for business, he could serve as a role model not only in Cambodia but definitely for some spoiled Western young people as well. As it happens, he is a member of my wife’s extended family in Kratie province. He is now making his home in Phnom Penh. For some reason I had never met him before but the last couple of weeks we spent a lot of time together. During this time, I got to know him really well and also got to hear his life’s story.

He was born the third son of a farmer’s family with three brothers and two sisters. As is still the case, in traditional Khmer families, the family connection is very strong and seeing them interact one can easily discern the love and respect the children have for their parents and their siblings. He grew up in the countryside, attending the local village school, and helping his family tend the small piece of land. At the age of ten, he started his career as a businessman, so to speak. North of Kratie City one village after another stretches out along the country road. He loaded up his bicycle with loaves of French bread and delivered those to all the villages down to Kratie City and even into Kratie City itself. Thus, he contributed to the meager family income and from that time on practically supported himself.

The next step when he was 12 was to collect old broken things, whether it was a bicycle part, a cart wheel, or a car part, that people in the villages had discarded because they thought it had become useless. But not to Nan (that’s his name). He took those things home and fixed them in order to sell them at the local market, or sometimes sold them only as scrap metal to mostly Vietnamese traveling merchants, who could also use practically everything. His oldest brother is still in this business part-time. When I was there the other week, he repaired one of those big drums they use in the pagodas. It had been left in some corner of the local pagoda. After fixing it, it will be as good as new and will fetch around $500 from the Wat. Not too shabby, in my view.

At age 23 (in 2003) Nan got restless and wanted to do more with himself. Over time, he had saved some money so he was the proud owner of a moto, or moped as it’s called in other parts of the world. One day he got up and set out for Phnom Penh to try his luck there. He was drawn to it like many country people in search of a job that could make him more money. He traveled to Phnom Penh, which is after all about 340 km from Phnom Penh, or about 250 km if one takes the road along the Mekong, which has recently been repaved except for the last 17 km – no easy trip on a moto. Since he didn’t have enough money, he pushed his moto part of the way in order to save money for the gasoline. People would stop and stare at him asking why he was pushing instead of riding his moto. One can imagine how dog-tired he was on arriving in Phnom Penh.

He knew a monk in his village who had moved to a Wat in Phnom Penh. This monk arranged for him to stay at the Wat. This was free but he had to help the monks in the Wat. To this day, he still lives at the Wat and gets up at 4 o’clock in the morning to sweep the rooms, prepare food for the monks, and pray with them in the morning. Following that, he sets off for a day’s work that sometimes doesn’t end until midnight.

The first few weeks in Phnom Penh left him bewildered by all the things he had never seen or known before. Initially, he didn’t know where to start. But if he is one thing, he is smart. He had his moto, just watched all the other motodup drivers, and simply did it the same way they did. Because he lived at the Wat he didn’t need to spend any money on food and board. That’s, of course, a big plus. Pretty soon, he thought being a motodup driver is not enough. Part of the money he made he sent home, the other part he saved. So after about a year he had saved about $800. Now he wanted to buy a car in get into the taxi business. But with $800 you can hardly buy an old jalopy, even in Phnom Penh. As luck would have it, one of his uncles was prospecting for gold in the mountains and had found 3 kilograms of gold, not as dust but as lumps, which is very rare. He is one of his uncle’s favorite nephews and without much fuss; he borrowed money from him to buy his car – a 1994 Camry, what else. Virtually everybody in Cambodia drives a Camry, unless you are better off; then is a Landcruiser or a Lexus. But the Camry was good enough for him. Now he set out to drive around tourists and local Khmer. The long-distance trips are the more lucrative ones, of course.

Being the ever-restless, ambitious young man that he is, he thought that the car would be good for long-distance trips, but in the city a tuk-tuk would be more ideal. Foreign tourists just like to ride it. It gives them that local feeling, and at home, they usually do not have it, so it’s really fun to ride it. He saved up more money and bought himself a used tuk-tuk, which he attached to his moto. To round it all off he also owns a bicycle that he rents out to tourists. Young foreigners like to ride around the city on a bike.

Over the last three years, he has created a good following among Khmer people, and also among foreign tourists and businesspeople. His phone rings incessantly. His customers range from 10 Karaoke girls, whom he took to Kien Svay for a girl’s day-off-picnic in his tuk-tuk, to foreigners going to Kampot or Sihanoukville in his car. Recently his brother who is a licensed tour guide in Siem Reap called him for a 4 day around the Siem Reap area for two foreign couples. He came back with us from Kratie to Phnom Penh at 4 p.m. At 7 p.m. he left Phnom Penh with a couple of customers had picked up by phone in the meantime. The next morning at 8 a.m., he started his tour with the two couples. After 4 days he came back to join us for a picnic in Tonle Bati. That trip netted him $200, which he shared with his brother, of course. Sometimes, he even has to hire a driver for his tuk-tuk to fill in as he has customers for both car and tuk-tuk.

This all goes to show that with energy, diligence, and a good portion of ambition and flexibility, there is a chance people can earn a decent living. Of course, it takes special people, or should we say, people with an iron will to make it if they start from scratch.

And last but not least, he goes to college and studies tourism at the same time. He has one year left until graduation.

If you want to meet this remarkable young man, you can contact him at

012 343 065 or 011 674 817

Of course, you can also email him at

I am sure he will appreciate your business.

Nan and his bicycle
His tuk-tuk
His prized Camry
His sleeping quarers
His 'kitchen'
Wat Oh Komphi
Wat Oh Komphi
Nan and some of the monks
His friend, the monk

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cambodian Impressions

Although this is not a travel blog I would like to share a few photos made on a trip up-country two weeks ago. Sitting there on a Sunday morning sipping a pre-lunch beer and viewing the Mekong River at a place called Oh Komphi, a great sense of tranquility came over me. This was before the Chinese New Year and we (my family and I) practically had the place to ourselves. Away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, Cambodia does offer beautiful scenery for the nature lover. This place is located just a little north of Phum Sombok and the boats landing for the river dolphins. That road also leads to the 100-pillar pagoda.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Word to the Wise

I have been writing this blog for some time now. Some of it is political, some of it is economic, and some of it is personal experience. However, whenever it gets political it seems as though only clear proponents and supporters of the opposition in Cambodia raise their heads, some with comments in its basest form, some insulting, some don’t even care to read what actually was written. They just assume that someone who is critical of the opposition must be in cahoots with the governing party and the governement itself. Being a foreigner with a sizable business interest in the country, I must, of course, benefit from the present power structure – how else can I succeed? Since most of the people posting aren’t businesspeople I don’t hold that opinion against them. How would they know how to succeed without becoming enmeshed in party politics or in the power structure? They wouldn’t because they – with a few exceptions - don’t have the slightest clue how things work here. I would only caution them to use common sense and fairness when judging other people, especially ones they never met in person, they don’t really know anything about, and when in most cases they do not have any understanding of a lot of things going on in Cambodia, as their experience is limited to newspaper accounts, third party knowledge, or impressions gained on short visits to the country. I noticed my most vocal critics don’t live in Cambodia at all. So where does their knowledge come from? Quite a few of the comments are from foreigners themselves, whose knowledge is, to say the least, limited. If they live in Cambodia they move in the same foreigner circles most of the time – don’t count bargirls as the ones from whom you can see and understand the local ambience. Only very few move in native circles almost exclusively – I am among them. Foreigners tend to see the situation with Western eyes and their set of values. Those values, however, are quite different in Asia. Just ask a Singaporean, a Malay, a Filipino, or an Indonesian. What Westerners find condemnable and downright despicable often doesn’t even raise an eyebrow among those people, by which I am not saying we shouldn’t work hard to bring progress to the country.

They never noticed that apart from a few exceptions I refrain from making outright positive comments about the government or the CPP. What I do want to highlight, however, is the ineptitude of the opposition, first among them, of course, the SRP with its leader. I don’t want to get into another round of criticism here. I don’t need to criticize the government and the CPP. Many others do that already. Why should I add my voice? My aim is to illustrate to interested people reading my blog that there might be other avenues for an opposition other than obstinacy that might lead to a better cooperation with the government, which in turn might lead to achieving some of the opposition’s goals altogether. I am not a professional politician, but from my longtime experience in other countries I know there are different ways, even in Asian countries. I also know many politicians are a rather sad lot to begin with and they make so many blunders one can only shake one’s head in wonderment. And that applies to all countries, I would think. There just isn’t a perfect democracy in the world. As we humans are so imperfect how can the systems we set up be perfect?

So in that sense, I will continue my blog in the same vein, and I reserve the right to moderate comments, some of which clearly come from immature, conceited, self-righteous know-it-alls. If you can make a constructive contribution to a discussion, you are more than welcome. But lay off commenting off-topic and clearly nonsensical remarks.

P. S. Hardly was this post online did I promptly get a comment insulting me. Some people just don't have the stature and brains to participate in an exchange in a civilized manner.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The IRI Survey

The International Republican Institute is formally a non-partisan organization funded by the U.S. government. However, it is generally perceived as leaning towards the Republican Party due to its more conservative outlook. Be that as it may, it conducts important surveys in countries that don’t have the means and knowhow to do those themselves. The results (should) constitute guidelines to governments on what the people of their country think and what the government’s charted course should be for the immediate future.

The survey for Cambodia was released this week and contains valuable information that the political parties and many a pundit should take to heart. It would appear that the findings support the governing party in general and that the opposition parties are bypassing the people’s concerns, at least lately.

Like in any other country Cambodia’s population is more concerned with bread and butter issues and important domestic issues like education and health care rather than with international conflicts, like the border issues, which of late have become the sole focus of Cambodia’s foreign policy. The government concentrates on the Western border and Thai incursions into Cambodian territory and Thailand’s unfounded claim to Preah Vihear. The main opposition party on the other hand focuses on the Eastern border with Vietnam and that country’s perceived encroachment into Cambodian territory.

Although the population as a whole stands by the government’s firm stance towards Thailand, the border issue with Vietnam does not seem to gain much traction among the people. The latter may be a thorny issue, which is more likely than not very difficult to resolve in the face of the close relationship between the two countries. Additionally, the government can ill afford to have opponents, possibly even enemies, on both sides – in the West and in the East. Any political security adviser worth his/her salt would be foolish to advocate such a policy. Therefore, at this point in time, with tensions with Thailand running very high, it surely makes sense to put the Eastern issue on the back burner. Unfortunately, this concept seems to be completely lost on the main opposition party.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that 80% of the people said the country is heading in the right direction. 51% are tired of the party leaders’ squabble and focus on their own personalities instead of on the pressing problems facing the country.

Even 40% (45% in the cities and 38% in rural areas) believe they will be richer one year from now. Seeing as that 70% comprise the rural population who are generally poorer than the city folks a certain optimism also permeates that segment of the population.

But the overriding concerns are that they want better health care, a better educational system, jobs, lower food prices, building roads and schools. However, just as high up there, in the high 80ies, is their wish for less corruption. This is naturally also no surprise as they are confronted with that aspect of Cambodian life on a daily basis.

The whole survey can be found here -

Since the survey seems to support the government’s contention that it is doing a good job the main opposition party took exception to the finding that 89% believe the country is moving in the right direction. They contend that people were simply too afraid to state their true opinion. With the 89% figure that interpretation is hardly convincing. It again goes to show that they just don’t seem to have a clue of how to play the role of a true opposition – certainly not by only lambasting the government at every turn. They know what the people want to hear and their political parties to do. Rather than being doubtful about the veracity of a survey by an admittedly neutral organization, they should finally formulate viable solutions and alternatives to the problems the people want addressed.