Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Delicate Social Fabric of Cambodia

On the one hand, Cambodians are very traditional and at least on the surface very religious. Marriages are commonly still arranged between the respective parents. At minimum parents reserve the right to veto a marriage with what they consider an unsuitable partner. Tradition among Khmer people calls for the husband to move in with the wife’s parents; with Khmer of Chinese extraction the wife moves in with the husband’s parents. It is, therefore, not surprising so see all those huge villas (of the rich) than can house several families. Even in the countryside, grandparents generally live with their children and married grandchildren.

On the other hand, we know that it is quite customary for rich men to keep a (younger) girl friend on the side. What amazes me, though, is the high incidence with which especially poor people also disregard those traditional values. Generally, it is especially poor people who maintain their beliefs in order to ease the burden of poverty spiritually. Only that way can they keep up a mental balance when observing the differences between their own lives and the lives of more fortunate contemporaries.

I have come to know many examples of poor people that demonstrate an unconscionable and depressing disregard for not only the values of traditional Khmer life but in particular show a despicable disrespect for the lives of wives and children.

A couple of examples: A man married four women and produced twelve children with them. He left or divorced all of them without paying one riel for alimony or child support. After the fourth wive he took up with yet another girl friend who eventually left him when she learned there was nothing to be gained by staying with him. He is a high-ranking officer but belongs to the category whose ‘wives weren’t very good at business’. In other words, he wasn’t able to use his position to generate some degree of wealth. He is now sick and poor. Thanks to his high rank the army takes care of him.

Then there is the case of a policman in his early thirties. He got married and had two children. His wife had become pregnant with their third child. During that pregnancy he met another girl and started having an affair with her. People in Cambodia are still pretty ignorant about birth control so it doesn’t surprise that he got his girlfriend pregnant. This made him leave his family from one day to the next. The wife did not have a job, the children needed to go to school. She couldn’t support herself or pay the daily fees for school. She became dependent on her parents. After the girlfriend had had her baby the husband all of a sudden turned back up at home, promptly impregnating his wife again, only to leave again after a short while. Her husband obviously thought 3 children, one baby, and one on the way was too much for him. In the end, however, he did return to his family but carried on in the usual Cambodian fashion. Husbands simply don’t tell their wives where they are going when they go out at night. He is said to spend a few evenings, sometimes nights at his girlfriend’s house.

In another case, a former soldier, penniless as they usually are, left his wife and four children to live with another, younger woman to produce another four children with her. Needless to say, he didn’t pay child support, let alone alimony to the first wife and her children. The good thing is they are all adults now and can take of themselves. The current wife is on the verge of leaving him for greener pastures, or so she thinks, although no other man is in play here.

Cambodian husbands are notoriously feckle, and although polygamy is outlawed and there is even a law against adultery on the books, it is still a wide-spread practice that Cambodian men keep mistresses on the side. This is not restricted to just the wealthier class; it pervades all levels of society.

The legal system does not help either. Although people can divorce easily, courts usually do not decide on alimony or child support. They restrict their decisions to the distribution of property. Usually, they split any property the couple might have down the middle, sometimes making some allowance for the children in that the wife gets a slightly higher share. Of course, that doesn’t help her in supporting her children. Children are still considered a family’s wealth and the providers for their parents in old age. Consequently, being divorced or just plain deserted, the women have to struggle to bring up their usually multiple children.

A note on divorce decrees: it usually contains an order that the wife cannot remarry or even have relations with a man for 9 months to ensure that she cannot claim a child born in the interim is the former husband’s.

Women are usually a strong partner in a typical Khmer marriage. They usually manage the office in a small family business. They manage the household and the finances, and most property is held in both names. Therefore, it is all the more surprising that they nevertheless end up holding the short end of the stick when the marriage fails or that they have no legal recourse for reining in their wayward husbands, prominent examples to the contrary notwithstanding.

Although Cambodia’s motto is “Nation, Religion, King” and the constitution makes Buddhism the state religion, that doesn’t hinder people from violating the tenets of their religion. Generally, Khmer people are very religious and observe all Buddhist holidays with great enthusiasm. Each home is adorned with a place of worship, but those seem be there more for the wives than the husbands.

Like any religion, Buddhism has several basic tenets or core beliefs. As we see they are broken on a regular basis by common people, that is, people who are not monks or nuns. And even monks are not immune to outside distractions. Those core tenets call for good conduct, virtue, and morality, meditation and mental development, wisdom and enlightenment; as well as the four noble truths, and the five precepts. To go into these would exceed this post.

While there is a big difference between the teachings and the application of those tenets, and many of those differences are manifest in civil laws, the general Western perception of Buddhists is their greater fervor in living their religion. Morality and virtue occupy a prominent position in Buddhism.

However, looking at everyday life now in Cambodia, one cannot but wonder why Khmer society has in reality distanced itself so much from those core beliefs. By nature, we humans are weak and succumb to all kinds of seductions too easily. Cambodia, though not alone with its recent abysmal history (Uganda, Ruanda, Bosnia come to mind) may possibly claim special circumstances for its recent societal evolution. After all, the relatively peaceful development after indedepence in 1953 was disrupted by the unwise policies of the 1960ies of then King Sihanouk, the coup d’etat by the inept Lon Nol, and the ensuing holocaust-like regime of Pol Pot. The Cambodian people went through a mind-shattering experience.

Although people tend to turn to religion in hard times, and most likely this also happened in Cambodia, the following years after Pol Pot saw the rule by atheistic Communists who did not place great, if any at all, emphasis on traditional Buddhist beliefs or values. I was not here – no Westerner was allowed into the country during that period – but judging from reports from the former Soviet bloc, Cambodia probably was no exception in that respect. The period from 1975 to 1993 must have shaped the national character, which may now at least seminally still be felt. Additionally, new-found freedom and better material circumstances may contribute to this ‘live and let live’, or ‘enjoy today as if were your last’ sentiment in Cambodia men.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cambodia and Its Cars

Cars are the scourge of mankind; at least that is what some people want to make us believe. Of course, in a sense it is true. People do a lot to own one and once they have that prized possession it becomes the outer symbol of their personality. It is no different in Cambodia, especially after its people had to endure hardship and deprivation for such a long time.

Americans think ‘bigger is better’. They came up with SUVs, gas guzzlers all, never mind past oil crises. ‘What’s the big deal?’, seemed to be the motto. Car makers made their profits on SUVs for the longest time and in the end that trend nearly bankrupted the big three in the U. S. when oil prices hit almost $150/gallon. People just no longer wanted gas guzzlers getting 12 – 14 mpg (15 or 16 ltrs./100km). Even those sporty European cars get around 8 – 10 ltrs/100 kmh.

Cambodians seem to be caught up in that same frame of mind and oblivious to all these market fluctuations and trends when it comes to their status symbol. Looking at the streets of Phnom Penh, prices at the gas pump don’t seem to faze those upper-crust Cambodians who insist on driving 8-cylinder cars at the a. m. abominable gas mileage, judging by the number of those huge SUVs clogging up the streets.

There are two underlying reasons for this. First, there is the concept that a big car gives a man great status (this applies not only to Cambodia, though), which leads some people to drive a Lexus 470 LX but to still live in a wooden shack without proper santitation or even furniture. But then, you will also find someone who struck it rich, even owning a few of those large SUVs. One trend seems to have been reversed, however. The most idiotic of SUVs – the Hummers – has largely disappeared. They seem to have been replaced by those boxy Landrovers, which now seem to be the ultimate status symbol.

Second, Cambodian people seem to have that genetic urge that if someone has or does something they all must have or do the same. In the same vein, if someone starts importing something, e. g. cement back in the early 90ies or batteries, for instance, everybody else jumps on the bandwagon, thinking this is good business, forgetting the basic law of economics that oversupply will depress prices. I could cite numerous examples where that happened, not the least with importing cars, in the end benefitting customers as dealers had to lower their margins and often had to sell below cost. (This urge also seems to extend to overseas Khmer in the U.S., where a large number of whom operate a dougnut shop.)

I know this from first hand experience as I was the first car importer in Cambodia after the opening of the country to the Western world in 1989/90. Government officials wanted to drive a Mercedes car. At that time, they couldn’t afford the bigger models so they opted for the MB 190. I had suggested to get other makes as well as they would be a lot cheaper. Mercedes cars are notoriously expensive on the used-car market. Additionally, the U. S. embargo was still in place at that time so there was only one way to get those cars – from Germany, a country with definitely higher used-car prices than the U. S. No one wanted to hear of it – it had to be the MB 190 in black or dark-blue, possibly silver; definitely no red, no white or light blue. Power windows, power locks, stick shift, no sunroof – those were the criteria. Stick shift because they felt nobody would be able to repair an automatic transmission at the time; no sunroof because if the car rolled over they couldn’t even begin to imagine what would happen.

So one official got a car like this, everybody else wanted the same car. Finally, I convinced some people to raise their status by trying the E-series, the most successful Mercedes series ever. Well, lo and behold, it caught on. And there I was importing MB E200/260/300 cars. Those were good times – import duty was only $2,500 per car. It didn’t last long, though.

But then came UNTAC with their Toyota Landcruisers. Guess what? Exactly; that was now the truck to have, never mind the cost or the gas mileage. Quite a few got stolen, repainted and sold on the black market. The business had become so cut-throat that I decided to just let it go. I didn’t want to go to all the hassle for just a $100-profit. Later, once the U. S. embargo was lifted, they started importing the first Camrys. Well, the same thing happened. Once the first one had gotten a Camry so everybody else wanted one too. The good thing about the dominance of Toyotas, of course, is the ready availability of spare-parts – new and ‘remanufactured’, and every Jim and Jack knows how to repair it.

Since the government ministers and higher-ups all got a Landcruiser as part of their position it became the ultimate status symbol in Cambodia, and still is today along with its brother, the Lexus 470. However, not everybody can afford the large SUV. For those people Lexus has the RS300. How much of a status symbol can it be, though, when every Tom, Dick and Harry drives one?

Nevertheless, the trend goes on unabated with even the latest even bigger models appearing that may be just a year or so old. These vehicles set you back more than $100K. Environmental or financial concerns? Not an issue for some people.

Anyway, I was in the market for another car myself and I had to weigh those exact issues – price, gas mileage, environment. I had been a long-time Mercedes driver, more than 20 years, so I originally wanted to get another Mercedes besides the Toyota 4-runner I use as my workhorse. But the price tag for the Mercedes I wanted seemed kind of high. A decent 2006 E320 from the US would run to about $55,000, pretty steep for a 5-6 year-old car (on account of the approximate 110% you have to add to the purchase price in the U. S. for freight, import duty, luxury tax, and dealer profit, the latter being the smalles item on the bill – about $500). Then I thought maybe an S-series would do just fine as well, although I think it’s a little too big for my purposes. On the plus side, though, there a quite few around in Cambodia. So I checked around. A 2000-model would run to $20,000. Still a nice car, but come to think of it, for me this is still a bit over the top, but compared to the $30,000 for a 2000 Lexus this would be an outright bargain, now wouldn’t it? Being a Barang in Cambodia, however, I don’t need that status symbol that sets me apart from the rest.

In the end I decided on the most reasonable car available in Cambodia these days – a Toyota Prius; great gas mileage, good for the environment, actually quite comfortable, nice quiet ride, and handles well due to front-wheel drive; the price tag was acceptable too. In fact, it was in the same range that same car would cost in the U. S. Well, there are always tricks to beat the customs people, I guess. While looking for my, or rather my wife’s, car I noticed that all of a sudden there were many Priuses for sale at the dealerships. Also, we now noted many driving around in Phnom Penh already. Is this the coming big trend for cars in Cambodia? I just hope it is. Makes sense, too, doesn’t it – with gas prices at $1.20/ltr. Hopefully, Cambodians will eventually see that a car after all is only a means of transportation. By the way, prices range from $13,000 for a 2004 model to around $17,000 - $19,000 for a 2006 model - 2007 and later to arrive soon.

We tried it out the next weekend on a trip to our house in Sihanoukville – we filled up the tank, made the round trip, and still had more than a quarter left in the tank of 45 liters. Although the gas mileage shown was only 37 mpg on average for that whole tank whereas normally it should be around 45 – 48, this is due to the fact that Phnom Penh stop-and-go traffic will lower the mileage. For those of you used to the metric system, 37 mpg is about 6.1 ltr./100 km, 45 is about 5.8 ltr./100 km. Not too shabby, right? Just think of the 20 ltrs. a Lexus 470 uses to crawl along at 5 mph in Phnom Penh.

A note on the salesmanship of those car dealers: don’t expect any of them to come out of their house and jump on you trying to sell you a car; they won’t. Some wouldn’t even come out after you beckon them. I guess they are not really in the business of selling, rather like we need to politely ask them whether they are willing to let us buy a car, perhaps?

And finally here is a list of some of the cars I owned in my lifetime. As you can see I didn’t always follow reason in my car purchases either.

My very first car - 1953 Beetle - Bought in the late 60ies - great sunroof almost made it into a convertible.

My second beetle - 1954 - after I had wrecked the first one (photo courtesy of 'Classic Cars')

I drove several of those - mostly the E260 - roomy, comfortable, top speed 220 kmh.

The smoothest ride and lines of a car ever - at that time - my 1985 Jag XJS12 - even took it to Cambodia - nobody wanted it as they didn't know it.

The start of the SUV craze - 1992 Chevy Blazer

Jeep Grand Cherokee - great SUV

2001 MB ML320

I currently drive this Toyota 4runner (stock photo) - super reliable but a gas guzzler.

Prius - the Hollywood celebrities' car, made famous by Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' (stock photo)